Mercy killing: yes, no, and why?

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Possibly the first in the history of the Congress of the Philippines, a  voluntary euthanasia or mercy killing and “living will-related” proposal known as Senate Bill No. 1887 or the Natural Death Act was filed by Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago. The bill seeks to recognize the fundamental right of adult persons to decide their own health care, including the decision to have life-sustaining treatment withheld or withdrawn in instances of a terminal condition or permanent unconscious condition.

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Over the past two decades, an end-of-life policy unfolded quietly in some parts of the world. In the US, the Death With Dignity Act (1994) in Oregon allows doctors to write legal prescriptions for terminally ill patients who want to control the time and place of their death. To qualify under the law, the patient should be fully conscious and able to administer his own overdose. In Europe, Belgium is set to be the second country after The Netherlands to allow terminally ill children over 12 years old facing unbearable physical suffering and repeatedly makes the request to be officially killed. Belgium and Switzerland have legalized euthanasia for many years but only for people over the age of 18. The Netherlands have legalized euthanasia for adults and children over 12 years for the past twelve years.

Mercy killing or euthanasia was a favorite topic of debate in Philippine law schools during the last fifty years or so. Now that a bill is with the Senate, among many questions Filipinos wish to be answered to have an in-depth understanding of the subject that will enable them to make an informed  yes or no and why in case of renewed debates, survey or referendum, are: What is euthanasia or mercy killing ? What is the difference between voluntary and involuntary mercy killing ? What is a “living will”? May human life be shortened legally? Should one kill another in mercy, or is life, however hard too dear to lose? What is the rule in our jurisdiction on mercy killing and assisted suicide? Is the mercy motive an element of a crime or defense to its existence? Out of compassion for a suffering patient, must we legalize euthanasia altogether? Out of compassion for the actor, must we mitigate the harshness of formal law under which euthanasia is treated as deliberate killing?

If an individual has the right to live, does he also have the right to die? If there is a right to privacy, does it include the right to die? Does the right to decide one’s health care include the right to decide to end one’s life? Is there a right to kill? Is there a point at which an incurable illness becomes a living death? If so, is it permissible for someone’s life to be deliberately cut off ? What are the religious, non-religious and medical views about euthanasia?

When does human life end?  What is “brain death”? Is persistent vegetative state the same as being brain dead? When is a person legally and medically dead? What is an acceptable legal and medical definition of “terminal condition or permanent unconscious condition”?  Who has the right to make the decision to end life–the patient, the spouse, the parents, the doctor/team of doctors or the courts?  Who should “pull the plug?” A black hooded executioner?

The complex life-and-death problems raised by the scientific advances in the field of medicine have no simple answers. Intimately involved in the issues besides physicians and lawyers are theologians, the courts, lawmakers, psychologists, sociologists, ethicists among others. Expert advice is needed from many fields on this culture-of-life vs. emerging end-of-life policy.

Former Ambassador Amado S. Tolentino Jr. belongs to UP Law ‘63 where his  undergraduate thesis was “Is there a right to die ? A study of the law on euthanasia” published by the Philippine Law Journal at the height of the comatose  Karen Ann Quinlan case in the US during the early  l970s.   He is a governor of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation.

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