The Right to Die: Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide from a European Perspective

AuthorNiamh O'Brien
PositionFinal Year BCL (International) Student, University College Cork. I would like to thank my parents for all their encouragement throughout my studies and to the members of the Editorial Board for their invaluable help with my article
Pages96-115
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THE RIGHT TO DIE: EUTHANASIA AND ASSISTED SUICIDE FROM A
EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVE.
Niamh O’Brien*
A INTRODUCTION
The purpose of this article is to examine the social history of euthanasia, and to analyse and
contrast the legal attitude to ‘mercy killings’ and the right to die in two different European
Union member states; Ireland and Belgium. This article will explore the history of euthanasia,
the cultural reasons which underpin the differing approaches of these states and examine to
what extent the relevant EuropeanUnion member states; Ireland and Belgium. This article will
explore the history of euthanasia, the cultural reasons which underpin the differing approaches
of these states and examine to what extent the relevant European policies are capable of
protecting vulnerable patients and the right with which the policy intends to safeguard. It will
also examine whether in this process they unintentionally curtail the right that they are meant
to serve. As stated by Philippe Aries ‘[D]eath no longer belongs to the dying man, nor the
family. Death is regulated and organised by bureaucrats whose competence and humanity
cannot prevent them from treating death as a thing that must bother them as little as possible.’
1
B EUTHANASIA: A BRIEF HISTORY
The term euthanasia derives from the Greek phrase εὐθανασία. The English translation refers
to a good death, characterised by ease and absence of pain.
2
The practice of euthanasia is long
established, it is woven throughout the fabric of human civilization.
One of the earliest recorded discussions of euthanasia was found in the historical records of
Suetonius. Suetonius, a biographer, wrote De Vita Caesarum in AD 121 wherein he chronicled
the life of Roman nobility. Suetonius spoke about the painless and quick death of Emperor
* Final Year BCL (International) Student, University College Cork. I would like to thank my parents for all their
encouragement throughout my studies and to the members of the Editorial Board for their invaluable help with my
article.
1
Phillipe Aries, The Hour of Our Death: The Classic History of Western Attitudes Toward Death over the Last
One Thousand Years (2nd edn, Vintage Books 2008) 588.
2
Visnja Strinic, ‘Arguments in Support and Against Euthanasia’ (2015) 9(7) British Journal of Medicine and
Medical Research 2.
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97
Augustus - a passing which was the euthanasia that the Emperor had desired.
3
Euthanasia was
recognised, but not always accepted as a societal practice, in many ancient cultures.
During the reign of Sparta, euthanasia was seen as a way to promote an ideal model of citizens.
The Spartans believed that it would advance their society to allow invalids, citizens and infants
with disabilities to pass away. The practice was often carried out irrespective of the
individual’s wishes in order to execute the expectation that ‘a person ill-suited for health and
service to the state’ would be better off dead than alive.
4
A departure from the Spartan acceptance of euthanasia can be seen in the works of Hippocrates
of Kos, most notably his work on the Hippocratic Oath. The oath is estimated to have
originated from the 3rd to 5th centuries BC, its code outlined ethical guidelines for medical
practitioners.
5
The Hippocratic Oath required physicians to promise to uphold certain moral
standards. One such moral standard was the exclusion of certain medical treatments from the
practice of the physicians who swore under it, including administering poison to induce death.
6
Although the oath originates from Roman and Grecian times, records suggest that the practice
of assisting with death continued.
7
Medical practitioners would continue to administer mercy
killings to those who requested it of them into the later centuries. There are several
explanations; namely that the registration of practitioners was not mandatory prior to
practicing on patients and there was an absence of enforcement agencies to engage with lapses
of professional standards.
8
Euthanasia was both an accepted practice and an acceptable death.
The fall of the Roman Empire and the increasing importance of religion were the leading
factors in the decreasing acceptance of euthanasia in the succeeding years.
9
The majority of
the world religions denounced suicide and euthanasia. The teachings of Judaism and
Christianity stated that to commit suicide ‘violates God’s authority over life’, a gift which
3
Philippe Letellier, Euthanasia: Volume 1 Ethical and Human Aspects (Council of Europe 2003) 13 as cited in
Soumi Biswas and Malay Mundle, ‘Passive Euthanasia/Physician Assisted Suicide - Whither Indian Judicial
System?’ (2014) 2(1) Journal of Comprehensive Health 11, 12.
4
Ian Dowbiggin, A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God and Medicine (Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers 2007) 8.
5
ibid 10.
6
Steve Philips, ‘Physicians, t he Morality of Euthanasia, and the Hippocratic Oath’ (Bioethics at Trinity
International University, 15 July 2015) of-
euthanasia-and-the-hippocratic-oath/> accessed 13 October 2018.
7
Dowbiggan (n 4) 9.
8
ibid 9, 10.
9
ibid 16.

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