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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Euthanasia debate sweeps world
By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online

The death of 22-year-old Vincent Humbert is just the latest in a series of high profile euthanasia cases that have changed the issue of assisted suicide from a dark secret, to an openly debated topic in many countries around the world.

In places like Holland, Switzerland or Oregon in the US, laws already allow assisted suicides, and campaigners say there is a groundswell of public opinion in many other countries - particularly in Europe - which will force their governments to follow suit.

Reginald Crew
Reginald Crew flew to Switzerland to die, escaping UK laws
But the debate is still a controversial one and the recent death of Dublin woman Rosemary Toole Gilhooley, shows the stark cultural gap that exists between places that tolerate the practice, and those to which it is a repellent concept.

An American pastor George Exoo faces extradition to Ireland after he and his partner admitted they were paid around $7,000 to support the depressed woman as she put a plastic bag over her head and inhaled helium.

Mr Exoo is said to have attended about 100 suicides in the US, but they all went unnoticed until this one in conservative Ireland, where assisting a suicide is a crime almost as severe as murder - drawing up to 14 years in prison.

The Vatican remains deeply opposed to the idea, despite a speech by Pope John Paul II last March in which he argued against using extreme measures to keep terminally ill people alive.

But in Italy pro-euthanasia groups say polls suggest strong public support for the legalisation of euthanasia.

'Suicide tourism'

Holland led the way in laws on euthanasia. The liberal country tolerated the practice unofficially for decades, but parliament finally enshrined it in law last April.

The law states that suffering must be continuous and unbearable for assisted suicide to be legal. The patient has to be of sound mind, the doctor must get a second opinion and only the doctor - not the family - can administer the lethal drug.

Diane Pretty
Diane Pretty went through all courts
Belgium has since followed suit with its own law - and similar safeguards - and in September 2002, Mario Verstraete, a 39-year-old suffering from multiple sclerosis, was the first Belgian to die by lethal injection.

Switzerland has adopted similar legislation while Luxembourg has only narrowly rejected changes to its laws.

But the Swiss charity Dignitas - which has helped about 150 people end their lives - is at the centre of a row about "suicide tourism" to the country.

In January 2003 Reginald Crew - who suffered from motor neurone disease - became the first British person to publicly travel to Switzerland for help to die.

Since then, a retired British human rights lawyer - who defended Nelson Mandela - has introduced a bill seeking to get the right to assisted suicide enshrined on the UK statute book.

Individuals are no longer willing to be told what to do
Voluntary Euthanasia Society
The move by Lord Joel Joffe comes in the wake of the high-profile cases of Mr Crew and Diane Pretty. Mrs Pretty fought a long, hard battle in the courts for the right to choose the timing of her death but died naturally after her legal fight had failed.

In Australia, one region, the Northern Territory, became the first place in the world to legalise euthanasia in 1996 - but in a decision reflecting the politically and emotionally charged nature of the debate, the law was overturned nine months later.

Rise in deaths

Keith Reed, campaigns manager for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, says the "growing support" around the world for the legalisation of assisted suicide is in part due to people's attitudes to the medical profession.

Lethal injection today - suicide pill tomorrow?
"Individuals are no longer willing to be told what to do. Empowering the patient is the new driving force in regular medicine. People's attitudes have led that. They are trying to ensure they have fundamental rights," he told BBC News Online.

But opponents point to the example of places like Oregon in the US, which has legalised assisted suicides - followed later in the US by the state of Hawaii.

The Pro-Life Alliance says the suicide rate among able-bodied young men rose significantly in the wake of the Oregon ruling, despite the safeguards introduced by the state.

And the group says that in Holland, some people are afraid to go into hospital for fear of being killed while hospice places are virtually non-existent.

Full circle

China - where doctors serve the state - offered a stark reminder of the problematic nature of the debate when life came full circle in the most cruel way imaginable for Mr Wang Ming-Cheng, 49.

The former factory worker in north-west Shaanxi province set in motion China's first euthanasia case 17 years ago when he asked a doctor to kill his mother, who was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver.

Mr Wang and Dr Pu Liansheng - the doctor who helped carry out euthanasia on Mr Wang's ailing mother in 1986 - were arrested and hauled to court on murder charges.

Though a court in Shaanxi's Hanzhong city found the two not guilty in 1992, the debate has not died down since.

This July - on his deathbed himself from a combination of lung cancer, heart disease and asthma - Mr Wang asked to die by the same means - but was told an emphatic "No".

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26 Sep 03  |  Europe

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