The Right to Die

Marta Bernardi
Current events

When there is no more hope and the individual needs to constantly rely on external support to keep existing – existing, not living – what is the meaning of enforcing more suffering, when there is a will to leave?

It is normal to be afraid. After all, it is an instinctive feeling, one that is common in all of humankind. Undoubtedly, some fears are better motivated than others. Besides, some are mild, and they can be tackled with the strength of will and, who knows, a comforting handshake. On the other hand, some fears are entirely invalidating, and they leave the individual at the mercy of his terror. Finally, there is another type of fear, sneakier and creepier. It is that same fear that sends shivers down our spine, that sharp discomfort, a faint feeling of uneasiness and the pang that makes your heart skip a beat. The fear of dying is surely part of this last category. But dying how? Slowly. Suffering. Deteriorating minute after minute, second after second, helplessly witnessing the decay of one’s own body and mind. Dying while sitting in the front row for that cruel show in which you see (and if you are very unlucky, you also understand) how this decay affects all those around you. Well, that is what really is terrifying.

In Italy, a lot has been said about the so-called end-of-life. Indeed, after the collection of signatures for the proposal of a referendum for the depenalization of euthanasia and the recent authorization, by Marche’s Healthcare System, of the assisted suicide of a patient who has been tetraplegic for ten years, it seems more than normal that the problem is underway. Even only to discuss two common procedures, often confused with one another. The basic assumption is the same: the presence of a person that wants to end his or her life. The main differences are two. First of all, euthanasia does not require the active participation of the person who asks for it, while assisted suicide consists in the person autonomously taking the lethal drug. The second difference mainly concerns the role of the medical staff involved in the procedure: if the case is euthanasia, the doctor has an active role, for which he must personally administrate the lethal drug to the patient; in case of assisted suicide, on the other hand, medical personnel has the role of offering – as the word implies – assistance, only with prescribing the pharmaceutical that the patient will willingly take.

As in today, art. 579 of the Penal Code considers (active) euthanasia as a consensual homicide and it is punished with six to ten years of imprisonment. Article 580, instead, refers to the crime of “suicide instigation” or help in committing suicide – in this case, assisted suicide – sanctioning it with five to twelve years of reclusion, in case it succeeds, and from one to five years, in case it doesn’t. While in the case of euthanasia the situation is technically going towards a change – considering the success of the proposal for a referendum with nearly one million signatures registered in Court the past 8th of October – for assisted suicide things have already changed. As a matter of fact, after sentence n. 242/2019 of the Constitutional Court, regarding the famous trial on Marco Cappato in the case of the DJ Fabiano Antoniani, assisted suicide is legitimated – and so is the patient’s right of taking his or her own life – under four conditions: if the patient is afflicted with irreversible pathology, if severe physical or mental suffering is involved, if there is a full capacity of taking free and conscious decisions and, lastly, if the patient depends on external cures and treatments to survive.

It is thanks to this sentence that the Ethics Committee of Marche’s Healthcare System could give the green light to the request for Assisted Suicide by a patient, who has been tetraplegic for over ten years. Unfortunately, this request, although it was granted, is facing many complications mainly connected to the fact that adequate legislation is absent; the procedure with which an assisted suicide could happen is not clear and it entirely depends on the local Healthcare System (by failing to give answers, it will have to postpone the sentence of the Courthouse of Ancona once again). Development is taking such a long time to happen because of technicisms that the Luca Coscioni Association (the same one that promoted the referendum on euthanasia) has accused the Marche region of deliberately creating a bureaucratic trap to prevent the patient from using a right which was – at least on paper – already granted. The Region on its part points out the absence of a law, and so of praxis to follow in such cases, as the cause of slowdowns and bouncing between Healthcare System and Courthouse.

Although it might be a little exaggerated, Luca Coscioni Association’s alarm is comprehensible. Year after year there have been efforts to change the Italian law – and public opinion – regarding the end-of-life, and it seems that we are only now seeing the first uncertain results. The Italian society’s radical Catholicism and culture (meaning not only the religious creed sphere but also the conservatory tendency within the Italian social texture) have undoubtedly had responsibility in the extreme slowness that afflicts the Association’s battle. Because, when looking at it, to prevent a suffering person who is slowly fading away from leaving with dignity is cruelty, plain and simple. When there is no more hope and the individual needs to constantly rely on external support to keep existing – existing, not living – what is the meaning of enforcing more suffering, when there is a will to leave? To legally grant people the possibility to end their life is an ethical choice or, better still, it reiterates ethics in the choice itself. It is important to keep in mind that if this possibility is granted, it does not become mandatory. It is only if there is a will, that we can rely on this option. Those that do not agree with this course of action can simply avoid using it in case they find themselves in a similar situation (which substantially is the same thought process in the case of abortion). However, a spontaneous question come to mind: if the initial objection to euthanasia or assisted suicide is connected to a purely religious sphere, in which mankind decides to arrogate the ‘power’ on life and death, should that decision depend on God? After all, if God is so merciful and inclined to forgiveness, He will surely understand that some crosses are much harder and heavier than others and that, in some cases, oblivion may become a legitimate desire that other fellow men have no right to deny.

[1] VIDAS, Cose da sapere sull’eutanasia.

[2] Associazione Luca Coscioni, Fine vita ed eutanasia.

[3] Codice Penale.

[4] Suicidio assisitito.

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