Essay: The right to die
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — 'Every person shall have the right to die with dignity; this right shall include the right to choose the time of one's death and to receive medical and pharmaceutical assistance to die painlessly. No physician, nurse or pharmacist shall be held criminally or civilly liable for assisting a person in the free exercise of this right."
Within the next half century, perhaps much sooner, the right to choose to die with dignity will be as widely recognized as the right to free speech or to exercise one's religion.
It will cease to be called euthanasia or mercy killing. It will not be viewed as killing, but as a fundamental human right as expressed in the imaginary constitutional amendment above.
In Europe, euthanasia is already sanctioned by law in Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. In the United States, the state of Oregon has also allowed it.
The decision last week by a French criminal court in Périgeux illustrates how social mores precede changes in the law. The facts of the case are simple: A 65-year-old woman suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer was given potassium chloride by a nurse and died shortly after.
Potassium chloride is a fatal poison. The dose was prescribed by a doctor and administered by a nurse acting on the doctor's orders. Prior to the fatal dose, the patient suffered from fever, trembling, incontinence, nausea, pain and an intestinal blockage causing vomiting of fecal matter.
The nurse was indicted for assassination and the doctor for assisting. The charges were later changed to poisoning. The two accused risked maximum prison sentences of 30 years.
After four days of trial the nurse was acquitted and the doctor was given a one-year suspended sentence. The court also ordered that the conviction not be registered in national government files, which will enable the doctor to continue to practice. It is not clear who initiated the prosecution. Neither the husband nor the son of the...