On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for euthanasia


According to a feature on suicide in the Economist, the global suicide rate has risen by 60% over the past 45 years, with about one million people killing themselves each year. However, it is exceedingly difficult to generalise about suicide, as the pattern varies markedly from country to country. In India, much publicity has been given to suicides by farmers — 17,000 died by their own hand in 2003 alone. But in India’s suicide capital, Bengalooru (Bangalore), most are skilled workers. In China, more women kill themselves than men, unlike most other countries.In recent years the internet has made it easier for potential suicides to plan their demise. The first recorded case of using it to make a suicide pact took place in 2000 in Japan. Since then hundreds have done so, from Norway to Spain.

The Economist commends measures to make it harder for people to kill themselves, from barriers in front of trains in Korea, to policing the web in Australia, to limiting the use of paracetamol, which can be lethal in large quantities, in the UK. These can “save the lives of many who are confused, temporarily depressed or in need of sympathetic attention”. ~Economist, Jun 21   



One of America’s leading bioethics journals features a strong argument for assisted suicide for the mentally ill in its latest issue. Jacob M. Appel, a short story writer and lawyer who writes on bioethics, contends in the Hastings Center Report that “the principles favouring legal assisted suicide lead logically to the extension of these rights to some mentally ill patients”. In Switzerland this is already the case. In November last year the high tribunal in Lausanne set down guidelines for people with “incurable, permanent, severe psychological disorders” who want to terminate their own lives.Mr Appel argues that that victims of depression or psychosis can make a rational choice about whether to end their lives, though given “the finality of a life-terminating decision”, the bar for assessing competence should be set higher. “If the values championed by assisted suicide advocates are maximimisation of autonomy and minimisation of suffering — even when they conflict with the extension of life — then it follows that chronically depressed, competent individuals would be ideal candidates for the procedure,” he asserts.

However, this could place psychiatrists in a particularly difficult situation, he warns. At the moment, contemporary psychiatry is committed to suicide prevention. Hence a psychiatrist would have to choose between acceding to a patient’s legitimate request and the unreasonable standards of his colleagues. To get around this, Appel suggests the use of “full-time thanatologists [a specialist in death] specially trained for the act”. ~Hastings Center Report, May-June   



It’s hard to know why Jack Kevorkian, the paroled Michigan doctor who has helped 130 people to die, agreed to be interviewed by the author of Tuesdays with Morrie, which may be the most persuasive anti-euthanasia book ever written. But he did — and the result was exactly as one would expect.The Kevordian charm offensive failed on Mitch Albom, a well-known columnist for the Detroit Free Press: “I couldn’t imagine a suffering so bad that I would want Kevorkian to be the last person I’d see on Earth.”    

Here are the highlights:

    “He didn’t seem to think much of the human race. He likened life to ‘a tragedy’. He quoted famous people saying they wouldn’t bring babies into this world. When I said that would wipe out mankind, he said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ “I began to sense a man who was more interested in death than life. Death was his academic passion, and sick patients were part of that academic pursuit, like lab rats. Is there a meaning to our lives? I asked. ‘No,’ he said. Was he happy? ‘I don’t expect the object of life is happiness. That’s why I’m happy.’ Set the bar low, in other words? ‘That’s the way to go,’ he said.”

Nonetheless, Kevorkian has his fans. The University of Florida has offered him US$50,000 to give a lecture. ~ Detroit Free Press, Jun 10; St Petersburg Times, Jun 8 



Jack Kevorkian, the American doctor jailed after assisting with more 130 suicides, has been paroled from a Michigan jail. In an interview with the New York Times, the frail 79-year-old was unrepentant, but promised not to violate the conditions of his parole by advising people on how to die. However, he has lost none of spark that has made him a celebrity, calling the government tyrannical, the public “sheep”, and his critics “religious fanatics or nuts”.

He is considering speaking engagements advocating assisted suicide, although the conditions of his parole will prevent him from going into too much detail. He told the Times that he had never been bothered by his nickname, Doctor Death. “They’re right in a way,” he said, since his focus as a former pathologist, was death and dying. “Everyone is going to die. Aren’t you interested in what’s going to happen?” ~ New York Times, Jun 4 

Assisted suicide

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in the US has issued a statement opposing the legalisation of physician-assisted suicide. “When symptoms or circumstances become intolerable to a patient, effective therapies are now available to assure relief from almost all forms of distress during the terminal phase of an illness without purposefully hastening death as a means to that end,” it says. ~ statement


Despite the publicity given to Swiss suicide clinics, not all Swiss are happy with a law which allows foreigners to seek help in killing themselves. Prosecutors in Zurich are now calling for an investigation into claims that some patients are merely depressed and not terminally ill or suffering incurable pain. Some foreigners die within hours of arriving in Switzerland, which suggests that they have not been given a thorough medical and psychological examination.Andreas Brunner, the senior prosecutor of the Zurich canton, told the London Sunday Telegraph: “We are not trying to ban the so-called death tourism, but the outsourcing of suicide must be put under stricter control… There are many cases where it is not clear whether the assisted person has chosen death in full possession of their decision-making capacity. But investigations are difficult due to lack of evidence after the suicide.” 

The founder of the suicide group Dignitas, Ludwig Minelli, dismissed Mr Brunner’s complaint and accused him of crusading against his organisation. “If the investigations had a real basis I would have been summoned for questioning, but this has not yet happened,” he said. ~ London Sunday Telegraph, June 3  



The National Institutes of Health in the US has declared that it will no longer breed chimpanzees for medical research. Although since 1995 a temporary moratorium on breeding had been in place anyway, the current decision makes it permanent. Authorities acknowledge that chimps are valuable for medical research, but that caring for them simply costs too much. Since 2000, chimps may not be euthanased after they are no longer useful for scientific studies, but must be pensioned out to a wildlife sanctuary. It can cost US$500,000 to care for a chimp over its 50-year lifespan.Scientists differed over the impact that the new policy would have upon research. Some feel that private enterprise will breed and support the next generation. Others say that it could affect progress in finding a vaccine for Hepatitis C, since chimpanzees are the only animals which can be infected with the virus. The decision was hailed by animal rights groups. ~The Scientist, Jun 5