Google Trends shows that euthanasia, the deliberate termination of a person’s life to relieve them of intractable suffering, as the top topic on Kenyans’ minds on October 24.
Euthanasia had been brought back to the limelight by the death of Belgian Paralympian Marieke Vervoort, the 2012 London Games 100 metres wheelchair champion. She was euthanised on September 22 in Belgium.
Having battled an incurable degenerative spinal condition which caused her chronic pain, Vervoort had toyed with death since 1998.
People often wrongly use the terms euthanasia and assisted suicide interchangeably.
Assisted suicide refers to providing the means and medical resources to someone who wants to take their life.
The final deed is by that person, but for euthanasia, it is by someone else. Typically, the person requests for it but the decision may, at times, be made by relatives, medics or even the courts.
Fraught with ethical, religious and practical considerations, the issue remains highly emotive and controversial.
Section 213(d) of the Penal Code, Cap 63 makes euthanasia illegal in Kenya with the culprit liable for manslaughter or murder.
Participating in assisted suicide is considered collusion and carries stiff penalties, whether the victim requested it or not.
Global trends point to the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted dying. Victoria State, Australia, legalised them in June, joining countries such as Belgium, Canada, England, Wales, Columbia, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the American states of Oregon, Washington, California, Vermont, New Mexico and Colorado.
But even where they are legal, euthanasia or assisted suicide are highly conditional and regulated. They require all or a mix of several conditions.
In cases of severe or terminal disease, rather than die in a deteriorating state of agony, some patients choose death over life. Notably, cancer accounts for most of the euthanasia deaths, followed by dementia.
The infamous physician Jack Kevorkian, aka “Dr Death”, likened bone cancer to having the worst, persistent toothache of your life in every bone in your body. This kind of pain can make even the strongest person long for death.
Dr Kevorkian is said to have assisted more than 130 people to commit suicide in the United States.
Proponents argue that since it is considered an act of kindness to ‘put to sleep’ an animal in intractable pain, humans should be accorded similar treatment.
They say that a life filled with pain, suffering and misery and devoid of joy, happiness or purpose is not worth living.
However, arguing for the sanctity of life, moral and spiritual groups view euthanasia as murder.
For them, life is God-given and should only be taken by God. With the Church as a moral authority, euthanasia would be a hard sell in Kenya.
Euthanasia can possibly open the door to coercion, use of force or exploitation by doctors and relatives who stand to gain from the death of the patient.
Other than pain, terminal and severe illnesses, many patients are vulnerable as they feel that the financial, emotional and mental burden on their family is too huge.
In Kenya, people say “alipumzika (he/she rested)”, especially when referring to the death of terminally ill kin.
The implication is that death has released the patient from immense agony. In some cases, death is a relief for both the patient and their loved ones.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who initially opposed assisted dying, changed tune following his personal experience with prostate cancer.
In an article published in the Washington Post on his 85th birthday, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and anti-apartheid campaigner said he did “not wish to be kept alive at all costs” and that “dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth” and be given the choice of a “dignified assisted death”.
At around that time, the South African Supreme Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s ruling the previous year allowing a terminally ill man the right to end his own life with the help of a doctor, though he died before the judgment.
Dying is part of living; the final chapter. Improved access to high-quality palliative care will ensure that the decision to end one’s life is not made out of poor care or depression.
Secondly, palliative care and medically assisted dying should be well integrated.
When a patient requests for assisted dying, doctors have to inform them of all the palliative care options available.
After all, a person who has made their own choices all their life should have the opportunity to make the ultimate one: about their death.
Ms Magoma is a branding and corporate communications professional and entrepreneur. [email protected]; @KwambokaMagoma