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British residents are the first to be able to order a kit designed to test deadly drugs
The same day, coincidentally, Chantal Sebire was found dead in her home in Dijon, France, after having unsuccessfully begged French President Nicolas Sarkozy to grant her the right to have doctors end her suffering from the rare disease esthesioneuroblastoma, which had painfully disfigured her face with tumors. French law only allows families the right to refuse life-support equipment for the terminally ill — it doesn't allow active euthanasia, and a court rejected Sebire’s request. Forty-eight hours later, she was found dead in her home. An autopsy revealed that she had gone ahead with the deadly cocktail. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner — a medical doctor himself — is among those who argue that euthanasia should be allowed in some cases.
And in July, Italy was under the spotlight. Euthanasia is illegal there but patients do have the right to refuse life-extending measures. In a dramatic series of events that went all the way up to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the family of comatose 38-year-old Eluana Englaro sought to discontinue life support after 16 years. Doctors had proven Englaro would never wake from the vegetative state she’d been in since a 1992 car crash and her father had testified that she would not have wanted to be kept alive solely by machines. A court eventually ruled that the feeding tubes could be removed, and despite Berlusconi's attempts to restart the feeding, Englaro died after three days.
The government dropped threats to prosecute doctors who helped the family, but promised clarification in Italian laws. Lawmakers and the public remain deeply divided over the issue.
But despite temporary wall-to-wall coverage of some of these cases, perhaps none was more graphic or elicited more response than the 2006 death of American Craig Ewert, which was captured live in a documentary and shown in December by Sky Television. Although it had already been seen in Canada and Switzerland, it was in the U.K. that it generated controversy.
Ewert had been diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease while living in Britain, and gradually became unable to care for himself. In the United Kingdom, there are legal distinctions made between passive euthanasia — the removal of life support, which is allowed — and active euthanasia, which means that anyone assisting a suicide could be prosecuted for murder. Wanting to ward off legal trouble for his wife, Ewert traveled to Switzerland to take the barbiturate cocktail at the premises of Dignitas, one of the best-known advocacy groups.
Ewert had said his only other choice would be to suffer and make his family suffer before he died of the disease anyway. But statements like this are exactly what concern anti-euthanasia activists like Dr. Jacqueline Laing of London Metropolitan University. She warns that “what starts as a right ends up as a duty,” suggesting that people with various forms and in various stages of disability may be made to feel as if they must kill themselves to avoid being a burden.
Laing argues that legalizing assisted suicide — which she describes as “allowing people to intentionally kill others” — is an unacceptable overstretch of the concept of personal autonomy and also creates a basic dilemma in the identity of a medical provider, who is turned to for healing, but also has the power to end a life.
As the debate proceeds, Nitschke's May visit to Britain provides tangible examples of just how touchy the issue remains. He’ll be touring several cities in the next few days, offering “tutorials” for his new drug-testing kit to groups wanting more information about how to commit suicide effectively.
However, he has been disinvited from a planned event May 14 at Oxford University because other panelists who’d been asked to appear with him to speak in favor of assisted suicide reportedly considered him too controversial.
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