The right to die with dignity

Euthanasia was regulated in the Penal Code for the first time in Spain in 1995. Article 143 establishes "sanctions for the crimes of induction and cooperation" in the death of another person and mitigating circumstances are considered to be "the express and unmistakable request of victims suffering permanent ailments that are difficult to withstand, or a serious illness that will necessarily lead to death".

Two years later in 1997, the European Council Member States signed the Oviedo Agreement that, theoretically, led to a new paradigm in clinical relations between medical professionals and patients based on dialogue, information and mutual respect that seem to recognise the autonomy of persons who are afflicted by and suffering as the result of illness, discarding a certain medical paternalism. However, the reflection of these considerations was ambiguous, both in medical praxis and in the law in force. So it remains in the hands of personal professional criteria and not the persons or the families that wish to call upon the right to die with dignity, as condemned by associations fighting for this recognition.

Death is highly present in the medical world; however when death is requested by the person who is suffering, there remains a taboo among professionals. It is known that clandestine euthanasia takes place, using a lethal injection. However, a medical professional who practices euthanasia is usually protected by the secrecy of their professional relationship with their patient, as otherwise they would be exposed to sanctions involving sentences given in the Penal Code, as in other countries where euthanasia is also a crime.

On the other hand, there is the option of drawing up a living will. This does not allow patients to choose euthanasia, in any case, but allows them to anticipate the type of care and treatment that they would like to receive should the moment arrive when they can no longer express themselves. As well as an exercise in freedom, this also represents an act of responsibility towards the people around us; the decisions to be taken at critical moments are too hard to be left in the hands of other people. Thanks to the fight led by different collectives and organisations, we can demonstrate our decisions in writing on which treatment to follow, how far to take risks in an operation or how long to maintain artificial life support. This always respects the framework of the legislation in force, although it is also able to include currently unrecognised practices in case the legal framework has changed when the time comes.

The debate that is taking place in 21st century democratic societies is not limited to euthanasia or to requirements such as who is included or excluded by the rules, or even guarantees that ensure against hypothetical abuse of the practice. The debate looks at the self-governing of the own life and the availability of life itself. This is where two world views collide: one considers that life is an unavailable gift and the other states, with the same conviction, that each person is in control of their own life. These two approaches that can be respected as long as each individual's freedom of conscience is tolerated and nobody has ideas imposed on them. From this approach, penalising the availability of life itself in circumstances where the person requires help from a heath professional because illness is putting them in an enormously vulnerable and painful situation is considered to be a contradiction and an unacceptable imposition in a democratic society based on personal freedom.

Organisations that are working for the right to die complain that there is moral asymmetry between these two points of view. According to these organisations, it is obvious that voluntary death cannot be imposed. However, people who believe in the sanctity of life, in the name of its particular values, attempt to hinder everyone else's freedom to choose. Those who wish to take control of their own life until the end claim the right to decide not only concerning euthanasia but when and how they die, taking a leading role in their life until the end, even taking control of their death. For this reason, they urgently demand that the legal framework should protect citizens who wish to be free to make decisions on their life and also on their own death.

Film: Honey

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  • San Sebastián Donostia 2016
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  • AIETE: Casa de la Paz y los Derechos Humanos