Mercy killing or murder, euthanasia is still illegal

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am

The debate about euthanasia flared up again last week with the death of a cancer-stricken French woman. Former schoolteacher Chantal Sebire, 52, suffered from a rare form of cancer which caused her face to become deformed and swollen.

The severely disfigured woman, who lost her sight and senses of smell and taste because of the malignant tumour, died two days after the French court rejected her request for the right to die.

Euthanasia, which means mercy-killing or medically-assisted death, has caused heated debates around the world. It may be conducted with or without the patient's consent. Voluntary euthanasia involves a patient asking to be killed. Involuntary euthanasia usually involves an unconscious patient whose death is decided without his consent. As a patient in an incurably vegetative state or irretrievable coma cannot agree to the act of euthanasia, his proxies - usually his doctors or family - make the decision to end his life. This form of euthanasia has long divided societies as it can be equated to murder.

In a medical sense, the practice is divided into two types - active and passive euthanasia. The former involves medical practitioners using lethal substances or fatal medical means to end the lives of patients. As this aggressive form of euthanasia runs contrary to a doctor's sworn duty to save lives, it has caused the most strident protests.

The most famous proponent of euthanasia is Jack Kevorkian, dubbed Doctor Death. The retired pathologist claims to have euthanised 130 patients. He was finally convicted of murder and sentenced to prison after he sent a tape of himself in the act to a television show.

Passive euthanasia usually entails the unplugging of life support systems or withholding treatments like medication, surgery or even food and water essential to sustaining the patient's life.

Passive euthanasia is commonly practised in hospitals the world over. While most societies deem passive euthanasia morally acceptable, its active form has touched off countless debates.

Religious leaders argue that human life is inviolable. Governments around the world also fear legalising euthanasia would spark a wave of assisted suicides of disabled but otherwise healthy people, hence making a mockery of the supposedly noble value of human life.

The personal crusade of quadriplegic Tang Siu-pun, better known as Ah Bun, to end his life through assisted suicide exposed the rifts over the idea. The wheelchair-bound Mr Tang, who has been dependent on others for most of his basic needs ever since a sports accident more than a decade ago, wrote a letter to former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2003 asking for euthanasia to be legalised.

He released a 300-page book I Want Euthanasia last year in which he argued for his right to die in peace and with dignity. He said the value of a person's life is subjective and should not be judged by others. His plight struck a chord with people who have witnessed the slow and painful deaths of their loved ones.

The sight of bed-ridden family members wilting away in hospital often makes people yearn for a more humane way to expedite their demise and end their suffering.

Proponents of euthanasia argue the practice can diminish the pressure on the public health system. However, this notion is rejected by moralists who believe this idea would see calls for people to die for the public good.

Sam Lee Yuan-tai, chairman of the Direction Association for the Handicapped, agreed that legalising euthanasia might put pressure on the sick and handicapped to commit suicide as they might worry about becoming a burden to society and their families.

Mr Lee, a quadriplegic, argued that instead of legalising euthanasia, society should step up support for the disabled which would allow them to lead a full life.

Mr Lee's arguments echo the calls for the provision of better hospice and palliative care for the terminally ill instead of allowing patients suffering from incurable diseases to die prematurely.

Studies show that most people support euthanasia, but the practice is usually blocked by the law.

In Hong Kong, euthanasia remains a strict no-no in the eyes of both the legal and medical communities.

As euthanasia remains a legal and moral minefield, many governments avoid debates about its legality, leaving it a controversial issue dividing the community.