By Jessica Haushalter

Who has the “right to die?” People with terminal illnesses, people with non-terminal illnesses, or no one at all? In our summer school program, Dr. Terry Perlin of Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Dr. Charles Debrovner of NYU Langone Medical Center, presented the ethics behind euthanasia, assisted suicide, and end-of-life care. “The Death Treatment: When Should People With a Non-Terminal Illness be Helped to Die” article by Rachel Aviv in The New Yorker, discusses these issues. Godelieva, a physically healthy woman from Belgium, who suffered from depression had the right to die in her fifties. The article details her life’s ups and downs, and how she dealt with them, including a divorce, her ex-husband’s suicide, and being a single parent.

In 2011, Godelieva filed a euthanasia request based on psychological distress. She made her son, Tom, aware of the request, but the two had been estranged for some time, and he assumed that the request would not be carried out before the physician spoke with him and so he did not address the matter further. However, in 2012, Tom received a letter from his mother that was written in the past tense. She explained that her euthanasia had been carried out on April 19th, at the University Hospital of the Free University of Brussels. Tom was angry, and accused some of Godelieva’s friends of cooperating with a suicide. The friends argued that it had been Godelieva’s choice and they wanted to support her. In her farewell letters, Godelieva explained that “the loneliness, no chance of a cure [for depression] after forty years of therapy, nothing to look forward to – all this has led me to see that the only thing remaining is a dignified end of life.”

As the article notes, “Belgium was the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to decriminalize euthanasia; it was followed by Luxembourg, in 2009… Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide since 1942. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that citizens have legitimate concerns about prolonged deaths in institutional settings, but in 1997 it ruled that death is not a constitutionally protected right, leaving questions about assisted suicide to be resolved by each state. Within months of the ruling, Oregon passed a law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for patients who have less than six months to live. In 2008, Washington adopted a similar law; Montana decriminalized assisted suicide the year after; and Vermont legalized it in 2013.”

The article also notes that, “In Oregon and Switzerland, studies have shown that people who request death are less motivated by physical pain than by the desire to remain autonomous. This pattern of reasoning was exemplified by Brittany Maynard, a twenty-nine-year-old newlywed who moved to Oregon last year so that she could die on her own terms rather than allowing her brain cancer to take its course. Since her death… lawmakers in twenty-three U.S. states have introduced bills that would make it legal for doctors to help people die.”

The article discusses opponents warnings that legalization will lead to a “slippery slope.” In Oregon, fewer than nine hundred people have used lethal prescriptions since the law was passed. In the Netherlands however, people can be euthanized even if they do not have a terminal illness. The article then details the history of euthanasia in Belgium at length.

I believe this was a very important topic to cover in the Global Bioethics Summer School, as it is an important issue to be addressed in our time. Do people have the right to die when they want – and should the government be involved in this process? There are many arguments for and against this movement, and I believe that open discussion will help us to find solutions that are fair to all.

To read the full article, click here.