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Interview with The International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force Spokesperson
Kathi Hamlon is the public information director for the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force (IAETF), a human rights group that maintains communication with and serves as a consultant for individuals and organizations around the world. In addition, she is the editor of the bi-monthly publication, IAETF Update; she develops educational materials; and speaks on euthanasia, assisted suicide, and related issues. In 1991, she appeared as a witness for the prosecution in Michigan v. Jack Kevorkian, the Circuit Court hearing which resulted in a permanent injunction against further use of his suicide machine. In 1994, Ms. Hamlon was asked by the California Attorney General’s office to provide testimony in legal action taken by the State to revoke Jack Kevorkian’s California medical license. Ms. Hamlon is married and has three children, ages 24, 23, and 14.
Spandan interviewed Ms. Hamlon over the Internet to find out her views on the euthanasia issue.
Why do you think euthanasia has been such a controversial subject?
Euthanasia strikes at the very heart of the doctor/patient relationship. From the time of Hippocrates, doctors have served as healers. The patient’s trust in his or her doctor is based on the fact that the patient knows that the physician is there to care and treat the patient, not to do harm to the patient. If euthanasia ever becomes accepted public policy, that trust will inevitably erode. The patient will never really be sure if the doctor is there to care or to kill.
Additionally, the subject of euthanasia is an extremely emotional issue. No one wants to die in excruciating pain, and they do not want their loved ones to suffer either. Sometimes these very emotional situations can cloud good judgment, making euthanasia seem other than what it really is: killing in the name of compassion. Euthanasia and assisted suicide have always been and will always be the ultimate abandonment of patients and patients’ rights.
What, according to you, are the most frequent reasons for a patient to want to die?
We have done polling in the USA on this very question. What we found was that people’s fear of pain and suffering was the number one reason for theoretically favoring the practice of euthanasia.
The fact is that no one under a doctor’s care in 1997 should be dying in excruciating pain. All the studies show that 95% to 98% of even the most acute cancer pain can be completely controlled by modern pain and symptom relief measures -- without putting the patient into a stupor. In the remaining 2% to 5% of the cases, the pain can be controlled to a level tolerable to the patient. The fact that anyone today would be experiencing unrelieved pain is a medical scandal. According to the World Health Organization, such a situation reflects a lack of knowledge on the part of the patient’s physician and other health care professionals. If euthanasia was ever sanctioned, it would allow doctors to hide their lack of knowledge, their malpractice, and their incompetence behind the coffins of their patients.
Another reason given to justify euthanasia is that people do not want to be burdens on others. But, ironically, that is the very reason why euthanasia should never be sanctioned. What would it say about a country that allowed the legalized killing of vulnerable citizens just because they posed the threat of being burdensome? The very thing that transforms a society into a civilization is how well that society cares for and protects its most vulnerable members. Surely, in 1997, medical communities and others throughout the world have the ability not only to compassionately care for dying patients but also to assist family members and friends who take on the role of caregivers. To do otherwise would be to abandon patients and their caregivers alike.
Pro-euthanasia activists like Jack Kevorkian have used terms like hopelessly ill, incurably ill, useless life, etc. Do you think that these terms carry any meaning?
Absolutely. Terms like 'hopelessly ill' and 'incurably ill,' so often used by euthanasia advocates in describing patients, clearly indicate that the true goal of the so-called 'right-to-die' movement is death on demand. One need not be 'terminally ill' to have a condition which is incurable. Diabetes and arthritis, for example, are incurable conditions, yet people can still live long and productive lives with treatment. The terms 'hopeless' or 'useless' are subjective, judgmental terms more often associated with a state of mind or a person’s perspective on something. Many people who have clinical depression view their lives as meaningless, hopeless, and useless. Yet, when the depression is treated, they no longer see themselves that way. The fact is that euthanasia advocates do not want to limit the practice to only the terminally ill. They want the option of induced death for anyone whose life is perceived as lacking in 'quality' -- whether that be a quadriplegic, a severely disabled newborn, an elderly patient with Alzheimer’s disease, etc.
What are your views on legalizing euthanasia?
I agree with the conclusions reached in a lengthy report issued by the government-sponsored New York State Task Force on Life and the Law after a year-long study on the issue of legalizing euthanasia. In its report, 'When Death Is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context,' the 25-member New York Task Force concluded: 'After lengthy deliberations, the Task Force unanimously concluded that the dangers of such a dramatic change in public policy would far outweigh any possible benefits. In light of the pervasive failure of our health care system to treat pain and diagnose and treat depression, legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia would be profoundly dangerous for many individuals who are ill and vulnerable. The risks would be most severe for those who are elderly, poor, socially disadvantaged, or without access to good medical care.' [NY State Task Force on Life and the Law, 'When Death Is Sought,' May 1994, p. ix]
Who is to decide whether a patient should be euthanized?
We should look to the Netherlands for the answer to this question. The main argument in favor of euthanasia in that country has always been the need for more patient autonomy -- that patients have the right to make their own end-of-life decisions. Yet, over the past 20 years, Dutch euthanasia practice has ultimately given doctors, not patients, more and more power. The question of whether a patient should live or die is often decided exclusively by a doctor or a team of physicians. In fact, according to a 1991 Dutch governmental study on euthanasia practice, in 45% of cases involving hospitalized patients who were involuntarily euthanized, the patients’ families had no knowledge that their loved ones’ lives were deliberately terminated by doctors. [Report of the Committee to Study the Medical Practice Concerning Euthanasia. II. The Study for the Committee on Medical Practice Concerning Euthanasia, The Hague, September 19, 1991, p. 52, table 6.8]
If the right-to-die is made a human right, do you think that the poor, terminally ill, or handicapped could be forced to use it?
Yes. The coercion wouldn’t even have to be overt. It could be very subtle. Inevitably the 'right-to-die' would become the 'duty-to-die.' That would be the case because a lethal injection or a fatal prescription is far less costly or time consuming that providing adequate care.
If euthanasia were to be made legal, do you think that doctors would quit fighting death?
Doctors who have been trained to fight off death sometimes consider it a failure when a patient’s condition becomes terminal. Unfortunately some physicians are tempted to transfer that sense of failure to the patient as a person, and avoid any meaningful encounters with that patient. It is often very difficult for doctors to admit defeat, so to speak. If euthanasia were to become an accepted medical treatment, there will be some physicians who will view that option as preferable to taking the time to compassionately treat and care for a patient whose life expectancy may be questionable.
Unless modern medicine can provide a definitive cure, isn’t it irrational to say we are prolonging life when all we are doing is prolonging death?
Doctors are not gods. They do not know with 100% assurance who’s going to live and who’s going to die. They do not always know which treatments will work given a particular patient. Prognoses are educated guesses -- but guesses all the same. To say that, unless a doctor can offer a patient a 'definitive cure,' he or she is just 'prolonging' a patient’s death, demeans the value of the patient’s life and the value of modern medicine as a whole. There is a great deal of living that happens between the time a patient gets sick and the time the patient dies. It would be arrogant beyond belief for any doctor to say that the patient should be denied that life, denied hope, denied even a chance that a treatment would prove beneficial just because the doctor cannot provide that patient with a 'definitive,' 100% total cure. The practice of medicine is an art, and human life is sacred. Therein lies the challenge to love and care for our fellow man.
Copyright (c) 2004, Nikhil Goyal. All rights reserved.