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Politicians shy away from taking stand on euthanasia

While Church underlines ‘sacredness’ of human life, politicians stave off euthanasia debate

Jurgen Balzan
17 February 2016, 7:37am
The right-to-die debate is poised to ruffle a few feathers and will, once again, pose a soul splitting moral dilemma for a largely conservative country.

But while the Church has a clear position against euthanasia and doctors and other medical professionals have shown a willingness to join the debate, politicians are reluctant to deal with the delicate issue. 

Following the publication of an interview with ALS sufferer Joe Magro in last Sunday’s edition of MaltaToday, the Church has confirmed that it has accepted to meet the 56-year-old man who is calling for the introduction of euthanasia. 

Speaking to MaltaToday, a Curia spokesperson said “the Archbishop had accepted to hold a private meeting with Mr Magro. In fact, the Curia was already in contact with Mr Magro to find a mutually convenient date for the meeting to be held.”

While boldly saying that he will take his own life once his condition reaches a stage where it denies him dignity, Magro called on politicians to kick-start a debate on euthanasia.  

[WATCH] ALS sufferer’s plea for debate on assisted suicide: ‘I don’t want to live in indignity’

  But while civil liberties minister Helena Dalli was unable to answer MaltaToday’s questions due to her presence at a UN event in New York, her opposition counterpart, Clyde Puli, failed to say what the party’s position is and whether it intends to debate the issue internally.  

Instead, Puli shifted the onus upon the government. “We are not aware of any initiative on the part of the government to legalise euthanasia. If the government now also intends to legalise euthanasia it should make it clear,” Puli told MaltaToday. 

On his part, Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Arnold Cassola cryptically said that while the Green Party has no position on the issue, it has no intention to discuss the matter. 

While telling MaltaToday that he thinks there is “very little” chance of euthanasia being introduced, Cassola said “I believe one would need to have a lot of background studies” before debating the issue at a national level.

‘Sickness is not a burden’ 

Unlike the politicians, Archbishop Charles Scicluna did not wait to be prompted by the media to express himself on the matter.

Admittedly, the Catholic Church’s clear position against euthanasia puts Scicluna at a clear advantage over the political parties.

During a mass celebrated to mark the World Day of the Sick earlier this week, Scicluna did not mince his words and warned believers and Maltese society “we do not own our lives. Life is a gift of the Lord.”   

Addressing a congregation made up of sick people and their carers, Scicluna said “sickness is not a burden, a sick person is a human being who has a right for treatment, respect and dignity.” 

He added that at times sickness wears people down to such an extent that they fall into the “temptation” of wishing for death.

Interestingly, Scicluna added “we should not exaggerate in stretching life to extraordinary lengths” because this is not included in the Church’s teachings and does not make sense to extend pain.

Yet he said that humans have no right to take it upon themselves to decide when life should end, adding that at times the biggest pain is not physical but that caused by solitude and depression. 

A Curia spokesperson told MaltaToday that “the basic principle to the issue of euthanasia is the sacredness of human life,” adding that before having a national debate people need to be formed and informed about euthanasia’s many facets – ethical, moral, medical, spiritual, psychological – a process which requires time and which would need to be held in the best interest of society.

Moreover, moral theologian Nadia Delicata explained that in her teaching on euthanasia, the Church maintains a clear balance between “two truths: that life is a gift from God that is sacred and therefore demands our utmost respect. But also that human life is not absolute: we are made of flesh and blood, our bodies are fragile and death is part of the human condition.” 

Delicata said euthanasia “is not about acknowledging the inevitability of death or of dying a peaceful death. Euthanasia is a form of actively taking away the life of a person, and therefore it is a form of killing, just like murder or suicide.”

But, the moral theologian said, there are times when the medical technologies themselves – sometimes even more than the illness or physical condition – become a burden. 

“The medical procedures no longer seek to heal the person or to improve their life, but simply to postpone the inevitability of death. In this sense, treatments become ‘extraordinary’, or out of proportion to the good that they seek to achieve. The treatment itself causes more suffering than healing; it disrupts and makes life seem mechanical, rather than improving it. In these cases, the Church offers the comfort of her pastoral care and in particular of the sacraments, to accompany the person who is dying.”

Majority of doctors oppose euthanasia  

An analogous position emerges from a recent study carried out among doctors in Malta. The study, published last year, revealed that an overwhelming majority of Malta’s general practitioners oppose euthanasia but they also agree with withdrawing or withholding treatment in certain cases.

The study, published in the Malta Medical Journal, was carried out by Jurgen Abela from the University of Malta’s department of family medicine.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Abela said the issue of euthanasia must be seen in a wider context, which might include also advance care planning and proper palliative care, rather than just a matter of ending life. 

Noting that the majority of GPs are against euthanasia, Abela however said that “a majority of doctors agree that medical treatment can be withheld if deemed to be futile”.

14.4% of GPs said they had received requests for euthanasia but 89.1% of them would never consider euthanasia. 89.8% of respondents considered their respective religion or philosophy of life as being important or “very important” in guiding their end-of-life decisions. 

Interestingly, a relative majority of respondents (45.3%) agreed that patients had a right to decide whether to hasten their end or not. 

But there was a significant agreement (70.5%) that physicians should always aim to preserve life.

Respondents had cared for an average four terminal patients over a period of 12 months. 

The study showed that 15% of GPs withdrew or withheld treatment. Moreover, the majority of GPs (58.1%) agreed with the process of withdrawing or withholding various forms of treatment at the end of life once these are deemed futile. 

This response might seem to contradict the strong sense of preserving life. But the study notes that withdrawing or withholding treatment cannot be equated to euthanasia; rather it is a practical approach to dealing with situations where treatment is ineffective. The aim is never that of hastening death.

Dignity in death 

Medical Association of Malta president Martin Balzan told MaltaToday that to date the association has supported the view of the “patient dying with dignity”.

He also stressed that MAM believes that once proper palliative care is delivered in terminal illness, with optimum pain control, and psychological and moral support of patient and close family members the requests for euthanasia would be minimal.

While saying that the association has not carried out a survey among its members over the matter, the regulatory authority on ethical issues is the Medical Council.

Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...
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