Sri Lanka Debate on Legalizing Euthanasia Highlights Ethical Dilemma

Professor Ravindra Fernando recently delivered a speech at the National Law Conference in Sri Lanka addressing the question of whether Sri Lanka should legalize euthanasia in exceptional circumstances, pointing to certain measures the government could undertake in those cases. Meanwhile, a patients advocacy group warns against assuming that simply arriving at "careful guidelines" will ensure that those involved do not suffer any negative ramifications.

Fernando, Senior Professor of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the University of Colombo, contends that exceptional cases would involve "severe uncontrollable pain in a terminally ill patient who has no hope of cure or recovery. He should be able to give consent or have given consent for euthanasia."

Fernando went on to say during his speech that the death should be performed in a humane way, and medical care for the terminally ill should not be compromised with the legalization of euthanasia.

"The question is not whether euthanasia should be legalized in exceptional circumstances but will it ever be legalized in Sri Lanka," Fernando argued, pointing to an amendment to the 1883 abortion laws which has still not been implemented after 128 years.

Rita Marker, attorney and Executive Director of the Patients Rights Council, argues that there are many factors contributing to the proper ethical execution of euthanasia.

"Many people assume that you can establish these very careful guidelines and everything will work out just fine," Marker told The Christian Post.

On the Patients Rights Council website, Marker and Kathi Hamlon confirm that the outcome of the euthanasia debate "will profoundly affect family relationships, interaction between doctors and patients, and concepts of basic ethical behavior."

"Realistically speaking, if you are going to make euthanasia by lethal injection a legal treatment accept that it will expand like a rubber band," Marker told CP.

Legalizing euthanasia raises a whole new group of ethical questions, such as what constitutes a terminally ill patient, as well as doctors' honesty in reporting safe euthanasia practices.

"If people are going to say this should be legal I think it's very important that they should recognize exactly what they are going to be permitting," Marker said, citing the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Euthanasia involves a third party performing the final act before death, such as a lethal injection. Assisted suicide involves a third party aiding the patient in death, such as providing lethal pills to a patient. Assisted suicide differs from euthanasia in that it allows the patient the ultimate decision in ending his or her life.

As Fernando contended in her lecture, "Ideally, the procedure to be followed should be comparable to terminating ventilator support in a brain dead patient," adding that two doctors should separately examine the patient and determine death to be the final solution.

"We should take adequate precautions to prevent family physicians like Dr. Harold Shipman, or pathologists like Jack Kevorkian practicing euthanasia in Sri Lanka," Fernando added.

With euthanasia being a far cheaper solution for medical treatment, Marker questions if those determining medical treatment payments will do "the right thing or the cheap thing?"

As Fernando confirmed in her speech, she believes that for exceptional cases, "It would be most beneficial for the doctors to offer some kind of permanent solution to the pain and prolonged life as they may not wish to commit suicide themselves or maybe physically incapable of doing so."

Currently, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, as well as the U.S. states of Oregon, Montana, and Washington allow euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Generally, Christians oppose euthanasia on the grounds of preserving human life as it is a gift from God, and therefore only God can determine the proper termination of such life.

The National Association of Evangelicals said in a 1997 resolution that it "believes that in cases where patients are terminally ill, death appears imminent and treatment offers no medical hope for a cure, it is morally appropriate to request the withdrawal of life-support systems, allowing natural death to occur."

Admitting that it is a difficult issue, the resolution further stated: "We believe that medical treatment that serves only to prolong the dying process has little value. It is better that the dying process be allowed to continue and the patient permitted to die."