The UN Human Rights Committee

The definition of euthanasia is "good death", from the Greek "eu" for good, and "thanatos" for death and can be accomplished either through oral, intravenous, or intramuscular administration of drugs. In common usage, such as in the UK, it is employed to refer to "the act of killing someone where, on account of his distressing physical or mental state, this is thought to be in his own interests". 1 The Dutch version is narrower and means the "termination of life by a doctor at the express and voluntary wish of a patient".

2 Except the Netherlands, where euthanasia was legalised in 2002 under strict rules, euthanasia is against the law, and classed as a criminal act. The victim's consent does not provide a defence in the UK "therefore deliberate euthanasia would normally leave anyone assisting liable for murder"3, this however is rarely the case. Despite the fact that changes have been attempted in the law of euthanasia in the UK, they have remained unsuccessful until today.

Despite numerous attempts to legalize active voluntary euthanasia, e. g. the 2004 "Assisted Dying Bill"4, reform efforts have failed in the UK where the traditional belief remains that "I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel" … The Hippocratic Oath. 5 Statistics suggest that doctors in the UK are hardening their attitude towards euthanasia "just 2. 6% of doctors said changing the law would benefit patients", however more than "80% of the people back the move". 6

Despite the fact that euthanasia is classified as a criminal act and law takes no account of the motive of the doctor, instances where doctors are charged and prosecuted for having performed active euthanasia upon a patient are few, e. g. case of Dr Cox. 7 Dr Cox was the first person in the UK who was prosecuted and convicted of attempted murder of one his patients who was a 70-year-old terminally ill patient who had asked him to put her out of her misery. "Moreover, it is significant that a sentence of imprisonment was imposed, albeit one which was ultimately suspended".

8 Although deliberate euthanasia would normally leave anyone assisting liable for murder, "liability can be reduced to either attempted murder or manslaughter (culpable homicide) on the basis of diminished responsibility". 9 This was the case in Dr Arthur's10 conviction where Dr Arthur prescribed a sedative designed to stop a child who had been rejected by the mother soon after birth, to seek sustenance. Initially, the accused was charged with murder by poisoning, later the charge was reduced to attempted murder.

"The jury acquitted him on the basis that he had not committed the act of "positive euthanasia", he had merely prescribed a drug, which had resulted in the peaceful death of a child". 11 Netherlands is the only country, which legally permits euthanasia. In 1984, as a result of the Alkmaar12 case, the Supreme Court held that a doctor who kills patients might in certain circumstances successfully invoke the defence of necessity to justify the killing if they adhered to ten clearly defined official guidelines referred to as "Leeuwarden and Rotterdam criteria".

They can be summarised to: e. g. (i) the patient must repeatedly and explicitly express the desire to die, (iv): All other options for care must have been exhausted, or refused by the patient, (v): Euthanasia must be carried out by a qualified physician. 13 In 2002, Netherlands legalised voluntary euthanasia assuring doctors that they would not be prosecuted. The UN Human Rights Committee has come to criticise the fact that the Dutch system cannot prevent abuses such as pressure being exerted on the patient.

This is supported by recent studies that show that euthanasia controls are failing in the Netherlands. "A 1995 report found that almost two thirds of cases of euthanasia went unreported while a 1996 study suggests that some doctors are ignoring basic safeguards". 14 Currently, law in the UK, a committee consisting of five Chief Prosecutors, does not carry out prosecution in the majority of cases because there appears to be a distinct reluctance by the police and prosecuting authorities to become involved. This outlines the necessity for reform.

Finally, the question as to whether euthanasia is morally wrong or not and whether it should be legalised or not can only be judged on an individual basis. If in the future, an ideal solution could be found to avoid current critics, then why should an individual not have the right to die peacefully? Summary of Methodology: For tracing purposes on the topic of euthanasia, the main sources that I took into consideration where the Internet, mainly the search engine "Google", books in the library and to a limited extend, newspaper articles.

I began my research with simple keywords such as "Euthanasia", however quickly realised that this mainly linked to sites, which concentrated and explained the meaning of euthanasia rather than giving details on the law. I then limited my search by typing in "Euthanasia in the UK" and "Euthanasia in the Netherlands" which reduced my search results considerably. The links on these sites met my expectations by offering current and past law.

While the information on UK law was in great detail, the info on the Netherlands was less helpful and focused on the procedure of legalizing euthanasia rather than explaining its effects. To widen my search on the effects of legalizing euthanasia, I searched for "articles on euthanasia". Hundreds of cases came up, some more recent than others, some more useful but all very captive. Eventually, I exploited the Internet and considered various books, which more or less summarised what I had been able to find in the Internet.

Unfortunately, some of the information on the law in the Netherlands was out of date. Finally, two articles in the Guardian helped me focus at the current up-to-date situation in the UK. Tracing information in the Internet was challenging at first however was the most helpful source of information. Up-to-date information, plenty of data and good explanation made it the ultimate source of information.

  • J. Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives, (1997), Chapter 14, Voluntary Euthanasia p. 182
  • BBC News, U. Smartt, "Euthanasia and the Law", November 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk