The athlete who wants to end her own life

Not afraid: Vervoort has won two Paralympic silvers and one gold in wheelchair racing.

She is a brilliant competitor with three Paralympic medals to her name. Yet Marieke Vervoort is set on assisted suicide. Is this inspirational, or a dangerous precedent for others?

Paralympians are used to wowing audiences in the stadium. Less often do they impress in the press room.

An exception came on Saturday. After winning silver in the 400m wheelchair race at the Rio Paralympics, Marieke Vervoort spoke to reporters of her wish to end her life. The athlete, who has a rare and very painful degenerative disease, insisted that she would ask a doctor to help her die once her suffering became unbearable.

‘Everybody sees me happy and laughing with my medals,’ she said. ‘They don’t see the other part of me… If I didn’t have [the option of assisted dying], I would have committed suicide. It makes people live longer.’ Her audience was stunned. ‘It was one of the rawest press conferences that anyone will ever attend,’ reported The Guardian.

Vervoort’s native Belgium has the most liberal laws on assisted dying in the world. Euthanasia is legal, even for children. Adults must convince a range of doctors that their suffering is constant, incurable and unbearable. The laws have great public support; the number of cases is rising every year.

But they are not without controversy. Pragmatists argue that it can be hard to determine whether a patient genuinely wants to die. Christians say that suicide denies God’s right to create and terminate life. Others fear that such laws may put pressure on all unwell people to kill themselves, whether they want to or not.

For these and other reasons, euthanasia remains illegal in all but a handful of countries, and a highly emotive subject everywhere. In May, anti-euthanasia campaigners picketed the UK premiere of rom-com Me Before You, in which a disabled man undergoes assisted suicide. ‘I’m not a thing to be pitied or killed off to make the audience cry,’ tweeted one.

When presented with such arguments, Vervoort was adamant. ‘I have a progressive disease,’ she replied. ‘Every year, it is worse.’ She has made up her mind. But should others like her be given the same choice?

A matter of life and death

Legalising euthanasia sets a dangerous precedent, say some. It sends out the message that some lives are worth less than others. It risks creating the impression that the disabled and chronically ill are a burden on society, and have a duty to kill themselves. No wonder the majority of doctors in Belgium were against these laws in the first place.

Not at all, reply others. Far from discriminating, euthanasia treats all lives equally. It recognises that everyone has a right to choose their own death (as long as it harms nobody). Committing suicide alone is traumatic, and in any case not an option for everyone. Euthanasia offers a peaceful way out to all. That is why it is the cornerstone of a fair society.

You Decide

  1. Should euthanasia be legal? If so, under what conditions?
  2. Is euthanasia tragic?

Activities

  1. Without reading the NHS page under Become An Expert, come up with all the arguments you can think of for and against euthanasia. Then compare them with those on the NHS page. How much overlap is there?
  2. Write and give a three-minute speech making a case for or against legal euthanasia. After everyone has given their speech, vote as a class on the issue.

Some People Say...

“Killing yourself takes a kind of courage.”

Robert Crumb

What do you think?

Q & A

Is euthanasia available where I live?
Active euthanasia (see Word Watch) is only legal in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Passive euthanasia and assisted dying are more widely available, though still in only a few countries. But many of those allow people from abroad to use their services.
Can’t people with a death wish just kill themselves?
Notwithstanding a small minority who physically can’t (see Word Watch), the general case for euthanasia is that it is a far easier, less stressful way to die than suicide. The idea behind it is that everyone has a right to a peaceful death.
How does it actually work?
The preferred method for active euthanasia is lethal drugs, often by injection. This is painless: the patient falls asleep, then their heart slows to a halt.

Word Watch

Marieke Vervoort
After being diagnosed with her condition aged 15, Vervoort devoted herself to sport. She was crowned world champion last year.
Euthanasia
Active euthanasia is when somebody actively intervenes to kill a person for their benefit. Passive euthanasia achieves the same end, but by withdrawing treatment needed to keep the patient alive. Assisted suicide (or dying) involves giving the patient the means and necessary information to kill themselves.
Children
Conditions for child patients are far stricter. They must be terminally ill (unlike adults), and have parental consent. Belgium is the only country in the world to have legalised child euthanasia; there have been no declared cases since the law was passed in 2014.
Suffering
This can include psychological suffering, such as depression.
Rising
In 2015 there were 2,021 declared cases, up from 1,924 in 2014.
Against
According to a survey cited in a New Yorker article (see Become An Expert).
Not an option
For example, someone with no control over their limbs would not be able to kill themselves without another’s help.

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