Mercy Killing—What Do Lawyers Say?
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
IMAGINE a man, 80 years old, who is informed by his doctor that he has an incurable disease. He is told that henceforth his condition will deteriorate. There will be increased pain and gradual loss of bodily functions. Drugs will blunt the agony for a while, but in the final stages the man will be in great pain until he dies. And, after the severe pain sets in, death might yet be several months away.
The patient reacts by drawing up a document that formally requests his doctor to administer an injection to bring death quickly when the pain becomes unbearable. People refer to such an act as “mercy killing,” or euthanasia (Greek for “good death”). “Active,” or “positive,” euthanasia means hastening death by poison or in some other way. “Passive,” or “negative,” mercy killing refers to permitting a terminally ill person to die without initiating or continuing “extraordinary” treatment that would only forestall death for a short time.
Until recent years most doctors probably would have refused requests for mercy killing. Lately, however, there seems to have been a change of viewpoint in some quarters. A Swedish district medical officer recently recommended the opening of a “suicide clinic,” where the elderly, seriously ill and other unfortunate persons could “ask for help in dying.” Many have spoken up in favor of euthanasia.
An Interesting “Mock Trial”
What if a physician agrees to perform mercy killing? Should the doctor be compelled to answer in court to charges of murder or manslaughter? All that has been done, the doctor reasons, is sparing from intense suffering a man who apparently was going to die anyway. But, according to the laws of most countries, such an act is murder. Should those laws be changed?
This matter came up for discussion at a recent World Law Conference held in Manila, the Philippines, and that was attended by lawyers from all over the world. The conference theme was “International Legal Protection of Human Rights.” One of the rights that received special emphasis was “the human right to die.” That meant the right of demanding death to avoid pain and suffering. The conference provided a good opportunity to see what men of the legal profession think on a matter so highly charged with emotion.
Euthanasia was treated in the form of a mock trial. Arguments focused on the hypothetical man mentioned at the beginning of this article. Three lawyers, one from Israel, one from Bangladesh and one from the Philippines, argued the case. There was a total of five judges who came from Canada, the Philippines, Senegal, Tanzania and Thailand. The lawyers had to speak either for or against mercy killing, using as a basis the assumed 80-year-old man. Then the judges would render a decision.
“Yes” with Reservations
Two of the three lawyers came out in favor of active mercy killing, although there were certain reservations. Syed Ishtiag Ahmed, a veteran lawyer from Moslem Bangladesh, felt that in the circumstances described the man’s request should be granted. In his opinion, if the prognosis of the doctor could be guaranteed infallible, if the ability of the patient to make a competent request could be ensured, and if there were some way of determining the degree of the patient’s agony, mercy killing should be permitted.
Nevertheless, Ahmed felt that the foregoing conditions would be difficult to meet in practice. And he was of the opinion that once legislation in favor of euthanasia was on the books, likely it would be impossible to prevent abuses.
The Bangladesh attorney also pointed out that in his country talk about the “right to die” was a little premature when so many there did not enjoy other more basic rights: the right to food, education, medicine, and so forth. For example, he asked, What about a person who is dying from a painful disease for which a cure exists but which is unavailable to him because of his poverty? Should mercy killing take place because he is too poor to pay for the cure? What about those who are insane, or unconscious, and, hence, unable personally to request a quick death?
Leniency in Some Courts
Israeli law professor Amos Shapira admitted that under the Republic of Israel’s present law, active mercy killing probably would be viewed as murder, carrying a mandatory punishment of life imprisonment. Yet, courts in Israel have displayed a sympathetic attitude toward euthanasia.
One Israeli woman killed her seriously retarded three-year-old child by putting barbiturates in his food. The court sentenced her to one year in prison, which was later reduced to four months by the president of the country. In another case, a 37-year-old man had incurable cancer. Gradually the pain increased until he begged his mother to end his suffering. She shot him one night in his sleep. In court, she was found guilty of manslaughter (not murder) and was sentenced to one year in prison. Execution of the sentence was delayed in hopes of gaining clemency from the president. Since Israeli courts are hesitant to apply the legislation as it stands, Professor Shapira favored reforming the law regarding mercy killing.
Jewish Religious Law
Professor Shapira pointed out, however, that the growing tolerance for euthanasia is not in accord with Jewish religious law. He quoted these words of a rabbi, J. David Bleich: “In Jewish law and moral teaching, the value of human life is supreme and takes precedence over virtually all other considerations . . . The obligation to preserve life is commensurately all-encompassing.” Another rabbi, M. D. Tendler, wrote: “One who is in extremis [that is, dying] has the full protection of the law; shortening his life by one second is an act of murder.” Doctors are permitted to violate even the Sabbath to prolong the life of a seriously sick patient.
But what if a person is moribund, that is, definitely dying with no hope of recovery? In such a case Jewish law does not require that a doctor unnecessarily prolong the dying process. The special Hebrew term for a person in his death throes is goses. The ancient rabbis felt that although every effort should be expended to cure or comfort a sick man, the dying agony of a goses should not be artificially prolonged.
A Dissenting Voice
The third attorney, Filipino lawyer and former senator Ambrosio Padilla, maintained that active, or positive, mercy killing was wrong in every case. He claimed that a patient’s request for death, regardless of his physical condition, is tantamount to suicide. If death is caused without the patient’s consent, this is homicide, said Padilla. He contended that life is a gift from God that humans have no right to destroy. In Padilla’s opinion, taking it on oneself to end a life would be like putting oneself in the position of God.
Additionally, the Filipino lawyer raised the question as to who really can guarantee the premises in the case under discussion, namely, that the 80-year-old man will positively die without hope of recovery. It is a known fact that on occasion “incurably” sick persons unaccountably recover. Besides, due to rapid progress of medical science, today’s incurable disease may be curable tomorrow. However, Padilla did not feel that a dying patient should be artificially kept alive by unusual or strange treatment.
The Judges Decide
After listening to all the arguments, the five judges withdrew and examined the matter. Two days later they announced their decision. Although not acquainted with any rule of international law that squarely resolved the problem, their considered opinion was that the man should be “allowed to die with dignity, and his request should be granted.”
This is an example of how lawyers and judges today reason on mercy killing. How should Christians view it? Because they respect God’s view on the sanctity of life, out of regard for their own consciences and in obedience to governmental laws, those desiring to conform their lives to Bible principles would never resort to active, or positive, euthanasia.—Ex. 20:13; Num. 35:20, 21; Rom. 13:1, 5; 1 Pet. 3:16.
However, where there is clear evidence that death is imminent and unavoidable, the Scriptures do not require that extraordinary (and perhaps costly) means be employed to stretch out the dying process. In such a case, allowing death to take its course uninhibited would not violate any law of God. However, there is need for considerable caution before people decide that a patient is beyond all hope of recovery.*
For a fuller discussion of the Bible’s view of mercy killing, see Awake! of May 8, 1974, pp. 27, 28.
[Blurb on page 7]
“It is a known fact that on occasion ‘incurably’ sick persons unaccountably recover. Besides, due to rapid progress of medical science, today’s incurable disease may be curable tomorrow.”
[Box on page 6]
Right or Wrong?
‘If there were some way of determining the degree of the patient’s agony, then mercy killing should be permitted.’—Ahmed
‘Taking it upon oneself to end a life would be like putting oneself in the position of God—so it’s wrong in every case.’—Padilla