Is Mercy Killing (Euthanasia) Truly Merciful? An Analysis Of The Most Unanswered Question

Author: Nandini Hirani Gujarat Law Society, Ahmedabad


The fundamental question about euthanasia: Whether it is a libertarian movement for human freedom and the right of choice, or an aggressive drive to exterminate the weak, the old, and the different, this question can now be answered. It is both.” 

– Richard Fenigsen

When we talk about the fundamental principles of living, it mandatorily includes that one has to die. In the advent of modernization, when everything has chosen its artificial character, now is the time that this artificial character is regarded to a sacred belief in almost all the religions of the world, The death. Euthanasia has become the most cardinal socio-ethical, medical and moral concerns across the globe. The concept of mercy killing or assisted suicide as they call it in Europe is novel to the world yet promising to the laws of many countries in the world.

Euthanasia is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering[i]. Different countries have different laws. The British House of Lords select committee on medical ethics defines euthanasia as “a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering”[ii] In the Netherlands and Belgium, euthanasia is understood as “termination of life by a doctor at the request of a patient”[iii]. The Dutch law, however, does not use the term ‘euthanasia’ but includes the concept under the broader definition of “assisted suicide and termination of life on request”[iv]. There are three forms of Euthanasia which include Voluntary Euthanasia which is regulated with the prior consent of the patient and is legal in some countries, Involuntary Euthanasia is regulated without asking for the patient’s will, also regarded as murder and is also illegal across the globe. Non-voluntary Euthanasia is regulated without the person’s will but with the permission of a family member who is in capacity of giving the consent on the patient’s behalf, which is legal in some countries.

 After getting the basic knowledge regarding the most debatable topic around the world, the question arises here is what are the consequences of legalizing Euthanasia. In 2002, the parliament in the Hague legalized euthanasia for patients experiencing “unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement”. Since then, euthanasia and its close relation, assisted dying, in which one person facilitates the suicide of another, have been embraced by Belgium and Canada, while public opinion in many countries where it isn’t on the national statute, such as Britain, the US and New Zealand, has swung heavily in favour.[v] Now, if read between the lines, the most contemplative interpretation of the words ‘unbearable pain’ has backfired the most basic aim of legalization of mercy killing. Countries like the Netherlands who have without the pensive nature of the outcome legalized such a phenomenon and have not created regulatory authorities to keep a check on the cases that are brought before the medical authorities. If all the countries start making such tactless laws, the time is no far when people with minute depression would opt to die as it is the easiest way of ending one’s life.

The Netherlands, the country to make most liberal laws about mercy killing has been questioned for various suspected cases which are ascribed as murder by the investigating authorities. As the world’s pioneer, the Netherlands has additionally discovered that albeit legalizing euthanasia might resolve one ethical conundrum, it opens a can of others – most importantly, where the circumscriptions of the practice should be drawn. In the past few years a minuscule but influential group of academics and jurists have raised the alarm over what is generally referred to, a little archly, as the “slippery slope” – the conception that a quantification introduced to provide palliation to tardy-stage cancer patients has expanded to include people who might otherwise live for many years, from sufferers of diseases such as sinewy dystrophy to sexagenarians with dementia and even mentally ill puerile people.

There have been instances where people in different countries have requested to die even in the absence of the acute possibility of progression of their condition. For e.g. Valentina Maureira, a 14-year-old Chilean was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby, asked the president to grant her the permission to die, but as per the laws of Chile, she was not granted permission for the same but the same is a matter of debate in the whole of South America till date.

The second was the case of  Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill woman who pledged to end her own life under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Law, died in her home from a lethal dose of barbiturates on November 1, 2014. announced they intended to take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, which allows residents with terminal illnesses to take their own lives with lethal drugs provided by a doctor. The couple had relocated to Oregon from California in June specifically for the law, which was adopted in the state in 1994.

Thirdly, In September 2014, a convicted murderer and rapist who argued he was living a life of unbearable psychological suffering in prison was granted the right to die under Belgium’s liberal euthanasia laws, paving the way for at least 15 similar requests from other inmates. Since 2002, people living in Belgium can ask doctors to end their lives if a panel of medical experts agree that their physical or mental suffering is unbearable and irreversible. Frank Van Den Bleeken, 50-year-old serving life for sexual assault and murder, argued he would never be able to overcome his violent impulses and would spend his life in prison. He has been imprisoned for 30 years and asked to end his life three years ago. The board that assesses each case said he had to seek psychological help first, but after he failed to find such treatment, his request was granted.

All these examples cited clearly give us a picture as to how easy it is to end one’s life that too in the garb of a law that specifically allows the killing of oneself. Now, as per the literal interpretational value of the word ‘mercy-killing’, it enshrines that death should only be given in such unbearable medical condition where there is no possibility of improvement in that condition. As per the last example that we saw, is permission of Euthanasia to a criminal on the grounds that he will not recover from his violent mental tendencies truly rational and within the boundaries of justice to the victim who was raped and murdered? The question here has opened many doors for its interpretation. But my exegesis on this point is total abolition and unacceptance of such a law is not the answer, because we do have many Aruna Shaunbaugs in the world. The Aruna, we couldn’t get justice for but the rationality stands when there are regulatory mechanisms to check the actual functioning of law. In the countries where ‘assisted suicides’ are permitted, it is the physicians who are to regulate the process as per the condition of the patient. Now, there have been cases in the human history that there are certain unknown disease to which there is no ascertained cure. In such cases, if a physician on this ground assists the suicide of the patient, who is to be kept answerable? For e.g. In 2012, a pair of identical twins, Marc and Eddy Verbessem, who were born deaf, were killed by Belgian doctors after seeking euthanasia when they found out they would also soon go blind. In a unique case under the country’s euthanasia laws, the 45-year-old brothers, from Antwerp, chose death as they were unable to bear the thought of never seeing one another again. On December 14, they were euthanized by lethal injection at Brussels University Hospital in Jette, after spending their entire lives together. Their case was highly controversial as neither twin was suffering extreme physical pain or was terminally ill. The twins both worked as cobblers and shared a flat together. David Dufour, the doctor who presided over the euthanasia, claimed the twins had made the decision in “full conscience.”[vi] Now here the decision of the consciousness of the twins as perceived by the doctor stands wholly irrational and gives us an idea about the merciless use of ‘mercy killing laws’.

When we talk about India in regulating the crimes against Euthanasia, it has set out a benchmark in not permitting irrational prayers of death from its citizens and has kept the true spirit of Article 21 (Right to life does not include right to die) intact.

“From the Soviet gulag to the Nazi concentration camps and the killing fields of Cambodia, history teaches that granting the state legal authority to kill innocent individuals has dreadful consequences.”

-Pete Du Pont

[i] “Euthanasia”Worldrtd.netArchived from the original on 5 August 2017. Retrieved 6

July 2017. Philosopher Helga Kuhse: “‘Euthanasia’ is a compound of two Greek words –

EU and Thanatos meaning, literally, ‘a good death’. Today, ‘euthanasia’ is generally

understood to mean the bringing about of a good death – ‘mercy killing,’ where one person,

 A, ends the life of another person, B, for the sake of B.”

[ii] Harris, NM. (October 2001). “The euthanasia debate”. J R Army Med Corps

[iii] Ibid 2.

[iv] Carr, Claudia (2014). Unlocking Medical Law and Ethics (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 374. ISBN 9781317743514. Retrieved 2 February 2018.

[v]https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/18/death-on-demand-has-euthanasia-gone-too-far-netherlands-assisted-dying

[vi] https://www.oddee.com/item_99258.aspx

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