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Euthanasia: the right to die or the duty to live?

Reading time: 5 minutes

It was February 2017 when some news shocked the Italian public opinion: a heartbreaking video of DJ Fabo[1], asking the President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella why he could not die in his own country, was made public. Fabo was only 40 when he committed assisted suicide in Switzerland, but his life had taken a dramatic turn of events several years before, when, having spent a night in a Milan club, he was involved in an accident that left him blind and quadriplegic. After trying all possible therapies, in the end he took the decision to end his life: “My days”, he said, “are filled with suffering and despair and I can no longer find a sense to my existence. I am firmly decided, and I find it more coherent and dignified to end this agony”. He set out for a clinic in Switzerland, accompanied by Marco Cappato, a Bocconi alumnus and member of the Luca Coscioni association. However, when the latter set foot back in Italy, he was arrested and charged with helping in committing suicide, which is a crime under Italian law.

It was the beginning, in Italy, of a battle of civility for what can be considered as one of the basic and undeniable third-generation human rights: the right to die. A battle that is being taken up in more and more countries in the world.

C-c-c-changes

In the last 60 years, several things have started to change. To the now-established second-generation social and economic rights, people have turned their attention to new and different needs. They have started to demand protection for other areas of their lives: the right to development, the right to peace, the right to a healthy environment. All of these are guided by the principle of solidarity: the Council of Europe itself indeed claimed that “the idea at the basis of the third generation of rights is that of solidarity; and the rights embrace collective rights of society or peoples.”[2] Euthanasia is one of these. Some human sufferings and pains are so atrocious that people just cannot take it anymore. And, as DJ Fabo asked, death would be better.

However, it seems that not many countries have given the right attention to this topic. Alas, very few have. Up until now, there are only eight countries where active euthanasia is legal. Those where assisted suicide is are just a handful more.

Two very interesting cases are the ones of Spain and New Zealand, which have both made euthanasia legal in the last year, in both cases thanks to collective action inspired by some people who acted as catalysts of legislative action.

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Spain [3]

According to the data, in 2019 more than 85% of the Spanish people were in favor of a legalization of euthanasia, with only a small minority, about 10%, being categorically against it.

The event that probably catalyzed the discussion in parliament was the story of Angel Hernandez, a man who gave his wife, María José Carrasco, who was affected by advanced multiple sclerosis, a drink with a deadly substance on her own request. Mr. Hernandez was arrested, but more than 600 000 people signed a petition to demand his release and a law on the topic. Following this, the governing party of PSOE, and their coalition allies Podemos, agreed to pass a law regulating assisted suicide in the country.

First and foremost, the person requesting to end their life shall suffer of a “serious or incurable disease or a serious, chronic and incapacitating condition, which causes them intolerable suffering”. In the bill, a series of steps have been set up that the patient requesting euthanasia should undertake before setting on their final journey. Such steps take up to a month to be completed, which might seem a lot but is an amazing result for all the families of the sick and suffering that have expressed this  irreversible decision.

Although the opposition party has promised to repeal the law in case they were to come to power, the approval of this regulation makes Spain one of the eight countries in the world to have completely legalized and regulated euthanasia.

New Zealand [4]

Euthanasia became legal in New Zealand following a referendum that was held during the 2020 general elections, that gave incumbent prime minister Jacinda Ardern, a strong supporter of the bill, a very wide majority in Parliament. The person who raised awareness in the country was Mr. Matt Vickers, fighting to see the right to end one’s life recognized after his own wife, terminally ill, had been denied it five years ago. “She didn’t want to die. No one does. That is a popular misconception. The problem was the choice to live had been taken away,” Mr. Vickers told the BBC. “She wanted a choice on how death happens so if things got bad, she could end the suffering at the time she wanted.”

In 2019, the End-of-Life Choice Act was passed by the New Zealand Parliament. Also in this case the person asking for assisted suicide must meet a series of parameters, such as suffering from a terminal illness, showing a significant decline in physical capability, and being able to make an informed decision about assisted dying. The law also mandates that a person cannot be eligible for assisted dying because of advanced age, mental illness, or disability alone.

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There have been some movements against the Act in the country. But the results of the binding referendum are clear: 65.91% of the people voted in favor and the bill is ultimately going to enter into force in November 2021, making the Kiwi island part of the restricted club of nations recognizing this right.

Italy

And so, we go back to the beginning. Following DJ Fabo’s story, Marco Cappato was arrested and charged of assistance to suicide, a crime that in Italy can lead to up to 12 years in prison, as it is considered no different from homicide. However, what happened then is a different story from those we have told until now.

Cappato himself demanded to be trialed as soon as possible so that, he said, “this trial is going to be an occasion for us to discuss an unjust law that goes back to fascism”. The beginning of such process led to popular support for legislation on euthanasia.

A couple of months after the start of the trial, the court in Milan asked for the help of the Constitutional Court, so to decide once and for all whether the law that punishes assisting suicide as if it was homicide is constitutional or not.

The court decided in October 2018 that “the current normative setting on the end-of-life leaves without adequate guarantees several situations that constitutionally deserve protection”. The Constitutional Court, respecting its role of arbiter, deferred the matter to Parliament, giving it one year to pass legislation filling the normative void.

After one year, though, nothing had changed, as Parliament was unable to pass a law on the matter. At that point, the Constitutional Court stroke the existing law as unconstitutional. Marco Cappato was freed of all charges. However, this event also marked the halting of this battle of civility: paradoxically, once the trial was over, the lights on the scene went off and people quietly started to forget it. The pandemic did the rest.

And so, what now? [5]

In Italy alone there are about 3.1 million disabled people, 250 000 of which are terminally sick people and 70 000 suffering of lesions to the spinal cord (as the paraplegy that affected DJ Fabo). These people suffer every day and must go through atrocious pain of the kind that is difficult to imagine for those that are not sick.

Some of the fiercest opposers of the law fear that it would allow virtually anyone to go to a hospital and ask to end its own life. This can be avoided by means of the institution of specific paths for the sick people that want to go on such a decision, as the cases of New Zealand and Spain have shown.

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Indeed, this is not just an Italian story. This is a change in the attitude of people that is happening in most countries in the world. And so, it is time that the legislation is set up, that the people start discussing on it, that this basic human right for the most vulnerable people in our society is guaranteed.

Comment of the editor. The article details well the situation with regards to euthanasia in some chosen countries. Given that you are making a point at the end (euthanasia is a “battle of civility” and we should encourage its recognition worldwide), you may anticipate it in the first paragraph.


[1] A summary of the story of DJ Fabo can be read at https://tg24.sky.it/cronaca/approfondimenti/dj-fabo-storia

[2] https://www.coe.int/en/web/compass/the-evolution-of-human-rights

[3] The account on the Spanish facts comes from https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/07/12/inenglish/1562916602_700890.html and https://english.elpais.com/society/2021-03-18/spain-approves-euthanasia-law-becoming-the-fifth-country-in-the-world-to-regulate-the-practice.html

[4] The account of New Zealand experience comes from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54728717

[5] Data drawn from ISTAT, https://www.lenius.it/disabilita-in-italia/?gclid=CjwKCAjwjuqDBhAGEiwAdX2cj2GE0TpJ_DC7WlI0UYOpAfjdMSHnPyQkPFLZheJ30g3lOj-Qh_mOPBoCPJMQAvD_BwE and https://www.superabile.it/cs/superabile/malati-terminali-in-italia-sono-250-mila.html#:~:text=Malati%20terminali%2C%20in%20Italia%20sono%20250%20mila,-In%20Dettaglio

Author profile

Just an ordinary girl who got her University wrong and should have studied literature instead. Originally from Bari (Italy), I am now a first-year BIG student. I am incredibly passionate in politics, philosophy, literature, economics but it would be more correct to say that I mostly die of curiosity for everything that happens around me: my challenge is to try to put all the emotions the world  unleashes in me into words.   

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