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Activists and acts of mercy

In Germany this week, and in Australia recently, there has been public
concern and significant media attention about the actions of euthanasia
activists. A former government official and lawyer, Roger Kusch, went
public in Germany with a video of an elderly woman who he had helped to
die. In Australia, Phillip Nitschke has been criticised for his
involvement and subsequent comments about the death of Graeme Wylie a
man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease whose partner and close friend
have been found guilty of manslaughter.

Opponents of euthanasia have used these cases to argue against liberalisation of laws on assisted suicide or euthanasia.

In the first case, Bettina Schardt apparently requested help to kill herself because of increasing age and debility and a fear of a slow decline. She did not have a terminal illness, nor did she have a painful or incapacitating physical illness. She lived alone, had few friends or family, and could not bear the prospect of going in to a nursing home.

In the second case, Mr Wylie had developed dementia, and was no longer able to recall the names of his children, or his own date of birth. He had contacted the Swiss group Dignitas requesting help to die some months before his death, however his application was rejected because of concerns about his competence to make a decision to die. His partner Shirley Justins, and friend Caren Jenning imported illegally a barbiturate from Mexico, and then administered it to Mr Wylie. Further qualms about the ‘assisted suicide’ were raised by the fact that shortly before his death Mr Wylie changed his will – substantially to the benefit of his partner Mrs Justins. After the court found Justins and Jenning guilty, Phillip Nitschke made a series of comments advising patients with early Alzheimer’s disease not to seek medical attention so that there would not be evidence of loss of capacity (and so that they could therefore protect their family from manslaughter charges).

The recent actions of Nitschke and Kusch may not have furthered their cause. Kusch has been accused of taking advantage of a vulnerable and lonely woman for self-promotion and aggrandisement. Nitschke’s comments to the press might be thought to be dangerous and misleading. They might lead individuals with treatable causes of cognitive decline (and depression) to shun medical care. His comments seem to imply that individuals who are not mentally competent should conceal this so that their (less than fully competent) wishes can be followed without legal sanction.

And the two cases could be seen to be exactly the sort of worrying scenarios that those who oppose euthanasia have imagined would occur if laws were liberalised. There is no evidence (at least from the media reports) that Kusch made any attempt to assess whether Ms Schardt was clinically depressed, whether her fear of going into a retirement home was rationally based, or whether other supports might be available to her that would affect her desire to die. In the second case, there were real questions about the mental capacity of Mr Wylie. His partner stood to gain financially and personally from his death, and deliberately sought to conceal Mr Wylie’s suicidal thoughts from doctors who cared for him.

On the other hand these cases could be used to argue for legalisation of some forms of euthanasia. One motivation for activists to provide unlawful euthanasia is that in many countries (for example the UK and Australia), the majority feel that euthanasia is acceptable at least in some circumstances. Providing a legal framework that sets out in which circumstances euthanasia is permitted, with appropriate safeguards and oversight may help prevent desperate individuals needing the services of the Nitschkes and Kuschs of this world.

Assisted suicide causes furor in Germany International Herald Tribune 02/07/08

Suicide video outrages Germany Daily Telegraph 02/07/08

German politician Roger Kusch helped elderly woman to die Time Online 02/07/08

Euthanasia law expert Margaret Otlowski backs jury
The Australian 21/06/08

Euthanasia comments criticised The Age 20/6/08

Mercy killing death: women found guilty Sydney Morning Herald 19/06/08

I stood to gain from euthanasia says partner
Sydney Morning Herald 03/06/08

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