State-Sponsored Killing or an Answered Prayer? Euthanasia: A Global Perspective

A debate that has been simmering behind the scenes since ancient times is the right to assisted death, otherwise known as euthanasia. A seemingly simple concept, euthanasia is when a physician plays an active role in a patient’s death. Similarly, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is when a physician supplies certain means for a patient’s personal application. Despite their simplicity, these concepts have divided countries, and are still very relevant in society today.

At its most basic, the argument for and against euthanasia is one of morality. However, the complexities that arise with euthanasia also consist of religious, economic and cultural elements that vary immensely around the world. Currently, the majority of countries that have legalised euthanasia and/or PAS are predominantly western: Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, as well as certain states in the US. Most notably, California was the fifth state to legalise PAS in January of this year, and Canada legalised euthanasia this past June, although Quebec had already done so in 2014. However, while each of these regions may have legalised the ‘right to die with dignity,’ the parameters that frame the laws of each country vary considerably, as does the way in which they were decided, whether by legislature or court ruling.


Image courtesy of dliban, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Slightly different than the laws of other countries, the Netherlands, which was the first country to legalise assisted suicide in 2001, has allowed the use of euthanasia only if the patient has an incurable illness or is in unbearable pain. However, the suffering does not have to be strictly physical, and the illness does not have to be terminal, as mental health issues such as dementia and trauma from sexual assault are also taken under account. In addition, children as young as twelve are able to both request and receive euthanasia. Belgium, who legalised euthanasia in 2002, has similarly liberal laws, which allow those with psychiatric illnesses, as well as children, to receive euthanasia. In comparison, Oregon, which was the first US state to legalise physician-assisted suicide in 1977, has much stricter laws. The recipient of fatal drugs must be terminally ill with around 6 months to live, mentally competent, over 18, and administer the prescribed drugs themselves. In this case, physician assisted suicide differs from actual euthanasia, in which doctors administer the drugs themselves. Other states in America that have also legalised physician-assisted death have followed similar legal models as Oregon. These states include Washington, Vermont, Montana (disputed), and California,

The distinction of euthanasia versus physician-assisted dying is also important in Germany and Switzerland, where the latter is legal but the former, as in the US, is not. In Germany, the reason is that the practice of euthanasia is linked to the eugenic policies used by the Nazis. However, in other countries around the world, the reason for the stance on legalised euthanasia is unclear. Colombia is split fairly equally on both sides on the issue in light of terminal cases, and although its constitutional court approved the legality of euthanasia in 1977, its congress has never ratified it. Similarly, in Japan, the Nagoya High Court ruled in favour of conditional euthanasia in 1962, however it remains illegal under the Japanese criminal code. Contrary to its unclear legal standing on euthanasia, Japan has the largest right-to-die group in the world: The Japan Society for Dying with Dignity. In contrast to Japan’s relatively widespread support, euthanasia is seen as a taboo in other Asian countries such as Hong Kong and China, whose conservative values do not leave room for discussions about death in any way other than naturally occurring. This negative perception of euthanasia is also reflected in countries with strong Roman Catholic roots—Belgium being an exception—such as Italy and Poland. However, despite its strong Catholic roots, France’s parliament has recently approved a bill that allows terminally ill patients to be sedated until death. Although this is a slight step towards euthanasia, it in no way endorses death with dignity.

While religion does play a role in perceptions towards Euthanasia, as seen in arguments about how suffering holds meaning and how doctors should not be given the power of God, economic and cultural factors also play an important role. In America in particular, expensive healthcare means that long-term illnesses can be very costly, both to families and to the hospitals themselves that must supply appropriate funding, staff, and accommodation in the face of an increasing elderly population. Certain cultural elements, especially relating to healthcare, also play a large role in a country’s perception of Euthanasia. In the Netherlands, contrary to the authoritatively distant role of doctors found in southern Europe, long time family doctors who are able to put their patients at ease are trusted to administer euthanasia. Thus, with many countries continuing the debate over euthanasia, as well as many convincing arguments for its legalisation and its successful administering in certain countries, we may see a continual rise in the legalisation of euthanasia around the world.

The term euthanasia comes from the Greek words Eu, meaning good, and Thanatosis, meaning death, and Euthanasia can certainly provide a good death for those in need. While counter arguments that support the right to live and question the abuse that can come with the legalisation of euthanasia are certainly valid, it is also essential to listen to the voices of suffering that plead for an easy death to end their pain. In brief, there are countless complexities to consider with the legalisation of euthanasia, such as relative morality, the definition of an inhumane life not worth living, and the abusive power that can accompany the decider of death. Thus, for many countries, the legalisation of euthanasia violates certain traditional values beheld in culture or religion; however, have we really progressed so little as a society that we cannot see beyond social constructs in order to give peace and dignity to those individuals in need?