‘Differences of opinion’ over assisted suicide emerging in ethical panel

Once unanimous in their opposition, advisory group now divided over making it legal to help people take their own lives

Faroe Islands, the town of Gjogv (photo: Vincent van Zeijst)
June 8th, 2012 1:57 pm| by admin
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After coming out decisively against active suicide twice previously in the past 25 years, parliament’s independent panel of ethics experts now appears to be divided on the issue.

The panel, Etisk Råd, which is responsible for advising parliament on ethical issues related to health and biotechnology, reopened discussion about active suicide during its monthly meeting in May, and in contrast to 1997 and 2003, members reportedly had “differences of opinion” during discussions.

“We’ve got a heated debate going,” Jakob Birket, the panel’s chairman, said. “But our differences are useful because they allow us to come to a conclusion that society at large can discuss.”

In the 2003 debate, Etisk Råd voted unanimously against assisted suicide. In the 1997 discussion, 16 of its 17 members were against.

Birkler’s own opinion is that the terminally ill should be actively assisted in their final days, but said that didn’t extend to helping them take their own lives.

“When someone is dying, we should administer palliative care, psychological care and therapeutic care, but we also need to consider that it’s a person who is dying. We can’t take shortcuts. Assisted suicide isn’t just another form of care.”

Mickey Gjerris, another panel member and a professor of bioethics at the University of Copenhagen, argued in favour of the practice.

“We need to help people to live and to die,” he said. “It’s rare that we need to kill people, but I could imagine situations where it’s the right thing to do. And if that’s the case, you need to do it, because it’s the lesser of two evils.”

Instead of supporting a legalisation of assisted suicide, however, Gjerris suggested allowing the courts to acquit individuals charged with violating laws in such cases, if they believed they were acting in the deceased’s best interests.

“You ought to help, and then stand by what you did. We as a society should be willing try and understand the situation and look at the facts. You shouldn’t necessarily punish people for doing it though.”

He points out that there can be a difference between “what’s ethically correct and what’s legally correct”.

Both sides in the debate express concern that legalising passive suicide could result in people being pressured into requesting active suicide. They also worry that doctors and nurses would be left to make the final decision.

“Why doctors though? They’re aren’t trained to kill. They’re trained to keep people alive. It goes against the very essence of being a doctor,” Birkelund said.

That position is one doctors themselves support.

“It’s never been a doctor’s role to take people’s lives,” said Poul Jaszczak, the chairman of the Danish Medical Association’s ethics committee. “I would fear that doctors would become hangmen, which would be utterly at odds with what a doctor expects his role to be.”

Etisk Råd expects its discussion about assisted suicide is expected to continue in the coming months. 

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