Euthanasia not on government’s agenda

Two people from Malta are currently members of Dignitas, a Swiss accompanied suicide organisation, though no Maltese citizen has so far made use of its services

Euthanasia is not on the government’s agenda, civil liberties minister Helena Dalli told MaltaToday, effectively ruling out a parliamentary debate before the next election.

Asked what the government’s position on euthanasia is and whether it intends to discuss the issue, Dalli told MaltaToday “the issue of euthanasia was not part of the electoral manifesto”.

Dalli’s reaction follows the call for an urgent debate on euthanasia and assisted suicide by ASL sufferer Joe Magro (below), who said that if the law is not in place he would take away his own life once his condition with ASL prevents him from living in dignity. 

While suicide is not considered a crime under Maltese law, assisting somebody to commit suicide is. 

Lawyer Stefano Filletti told MaltaToday that anyone found guilty of assisting another person to commit suicide is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 years.

The criminal law expert said that should the law be changed, “we should ask two fundamental questions: in what circumstances should assisted suicide be permissible and who should decide whether it is permissible.”

Noting that assisted suicide and euthanasia are not considered as rights by the European Court of Human Rights, Filletti underlined a recent landmark ruling given by the court.

Last year, the ECHR rejected a right-to-die case brought by a British paralysed former builder and the widow of a man who had locked-in syndrome.

Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson, whose 58-year-old husband Tony died three years ago, brought the case at the court in Strasbourg – the culmination of their campaign that disabled people should have the right to be helped to die with dignity.

But in a written judgment, the court said: “In its decision in the case of Nicklinson and Lamb v. the United Kingdom the European Court of Human Rights has unanimously declared the applications inadmissible. The decision is final.”

Filletti also pointed out that it is up to national legislators to change the law and warned that if such a change is implemented, it should neither be too taxing, making it almost inaccessible, nor too easy to access. 

Asked whether Maltese citizens would be committing a crime if they were to accompany another Maltese citizen to another country such as Switzerland – where assisted suicide is legalised – Filletti said it’s a highly complex situation. 

“It would be very difficult to prove and it’s a very complicated situation. However, given the costs involved, it is adding more misery to misery,” he said, adding that the debate should revolve around the needs of people whose condition will never get any better.

By the end of 2015, two Maltese citizens were members of Dignitas – a help-to-life and right-to-die non-profit organization – and that is one down from the previous year. The association has almost 8,000 members, most of them from Germany, the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy and the US. 

But since its inception 18 years ago, no Maltese citizens have made use of Dignitas’s services. Statistics show that 47% of accompanied suicides involved German citizens. 310 UK citizens have made use of Dignitas’s services between 1998 and 2014, making up almost 15% of accompanied suicides.  

In 2009, the British Parliament said it would consider an amendment to a bill that would allow what is termed as suicide tourism by right-wing Swiss politicians by not charging people with assisting suicide when they take their loved ones to countries where it is allowed. Like Malta, Britain has a law banning assisted suicide, but it has not been enforced in cases where people accompanied others to Switzerland or other countries where assisted suicide is legal.

In Switzerland alone, there are at least six organisations which offer such services, and four of them allow non-Swiss residents to make use of their services. 

Dignitas 'not a clinic'

Speaking to MaltaToday, Dignitas clarified that it is not a “clinic”, insisting that this is an “invention by incompetent, irresponsible journalists and the tabloids.”

Dignitas describes itself as a help-to-life and right-to-die not-for-profit members’ society, a self-determination and dignity advocacy group, “but definitely not a clinic.”

The association does not employ doctors and nurses and does not provide any medical treatment but offers educational and counselling services. 

Dignitas also denied that it offers voluntary or involuntary euthanasia, because this is prohibited in Switzerland. 

The association told MaltaToday that euthanasia is an ambiguous term, meaning ‘good, mild, gentle death.’ 

“It’s use ranges from all sorts of help at the end of life, putting down animals, to certain practices of the holocaust during WWII. Active euthanasia must be considered as murder or manslaughter and is a crime in Switzerland just as much as it is a crime in most other countries around the world.”

However, what is possible in Switzerland is called ‘assisted suicide’ or as Dignitas calls it: ‘accompanied suicide’. 

“This expression indicates what it is: a suicide, a self-determined ending of one’s suffering and life by own actions. An accompanied suicide means that the individual wishing to end his or her life must be able to administer the lethal drug (or any other method) by himself or herself. And he or she must have full capacity of discernment. Most important, the person is not left alone, but may end his/her life in the presence of next-of-kin and friends,” Dignitas said.

In order to access the service of an accompanied suicide, one has to be a member of Dignitas, be of sound judgement, and possess a minimum level of physical mobility sufficient enough to self-administer the drug.

Since the cooperation of a Swiss medical doctor is vital in obtaining the required drug, further prerequisites mean that the person must have a disease which will lead to death, an incapacitating disability and/or unbearable and uncontrollable pain.