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Systemic Euthanasia

The escalating economic and social costs of supporting ageing beyond natural lifecycles leads to wider acceptance of assisted suicide for those who have had enough

Given the certainty of imbalanced population growth and the increasingly ageing population, some claim that there are people born today who, if they wish, could live for over 200 years. With the current record at 120 and a host of people already living past 115 , there is little doubt that, with technology advancing as quickly as it is, physically adding another 80 years or so is looking possible. Whether or not mental capacity can be sustained for that long may be a greater challenge, but the world will certainly get used to more and more centenarians; in the UK alone there are over 9000 of them today.

While this may be all well and good at an individual level, many see that from a societal perspective the ageing population is presenting us with a major financial burden. Given  pensions are not really designed for people to live much beyond 75, increasing dependency ratios in many nations and escalating healthcare costs across the board, some people have been asking the rather difficult questions around whether we can continue to cope with this level of mass long term ageing.

An increasing number of healthcare professionals see that life-sustaining treatment is frequently not cost-effective. In the US acute hospital care accounts for over half (55%) of the spending for Medicare beneficiaries in the last two years of life. In many other countries the high costs of surgery, intensive care and life-extending drugs used  towards the end of  a patient’s life  adds up to nearly 80% of total healthcare costs. A recent study in Brazil confirmed that over 70% of total  healthcare costs occur in the last twelve months before death. And a story on Bloomberg a couple of years ago highlighted the case of one US resident whose healthcare costs  totalled $618,616, almost two- thirds of it for the final 24 months, and according to his wife “much of it for treatments that no one can say for sure helped extend his life.”

Given such predictable trends, a growing question being raised in governments and medical policy groups is whether we should continue to  putting in all this effort and resources, in many cases only to delay the inevitable by a few months. In a US future of health workshop, the question was asked “When will the US adopt the Do Not Resuscitate policy used by the National Health Service in the UK?”: A DNR order on a patient’s file means that a doctor is not required to resuscitate a patient if their heart stops and is designed to prevent unnecessary suffering. This is used when a patient is in hospital and the benefits of treatment are seen to be outweighed by the burdens of future quality of life.   Some regard this  as a form of passive euthanasia. At the workshop it was argued that if the US were to adopt the same policy, the savings to the healthcare budget would be enormous and unnecessary suffering of patients who had little hope of long term recovery would be avoided. However, this is just one step and others are proposing even more significant changes.

Over the past few years, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill have become prominent medical and social issues. There are legal and ethical constraints on euthanasia in many countries, but not in all: Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal in, for example, Colombia, Belgium and the Netherlands: In 1990, 9% of all deaths in the Netherlands were as a result of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. However, in most countries, despite a number of legal challenges, assisted-suicide for the terminally ill remains illegal – albeit rarely prosecuted. Recent attention has specifically been focused on the growing popularity of clinics such as those run by Dignitas and EXIT in Switzerland; Since its foundation in 1998, Dignitas has assisted around 1000 people to die, 60% of them from Germany and 10% from the UK.

In markets such as the US where the healthcare system is largely focused on keeping people alive for as long as possible, assisted suicide and DNR are highly controversial topics. Even with increasingly public moves, such as that of the author Terry Pratchet who has called for tribunals to give sufferers from incurable diseases the right to medical help to end their lives, wider acceptance of euthanasia is still in the minority. But it is growing.

In ten years, many think that more and more people will start to see that life doesn’t need to go on for ever, especially since the option to live for longer in reasonable comfort is really only a luxury for wealthier nations where the healthcare systems, insurance policies and private wealth enable increased levels of support. The argument is that systemic euthanasia should be introduced. Moreover, this should not be limited just to those who have a proven terminal illness but should be an option available to all.

With the economic burdens evident and the trends clear, the rational side of the case is increasingly accepted, but in many influential circles the ethical, emotional and political perspectives are also shifting. Some see that opening the door for euthanasia beyond those with terminal illness is a slippery slope leading to a point where individuals who would not otherwise consider it may be pressurised into   asking for assisted suicide by interested parties, others see that the option to proactively check out of life when enough is enough is a sign of a more balanced society. No doubt the debate will continue, and pick up pace as more countries make assisted suicide legal, and, for those that don’t, the numbers travelling across borders for the service may well increase.

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One Response to “Systemic Euthanasia”
  1. Denis Bourke says:

    Like many issues that are confronting society, it has been the development of science that has taken us there. Perhaps further interference with the ‘natural order’ should be curtailed as a first measure. What is the point of eliminating disease, forestalling ageing, mending the DNA, and so forth to provide healthier and longer lives, if we then actively hasten peoples’ death? Or is this, “if I am rich I can buy life, if I am poor I get the needle”. Another point to consider is why does the West persist in economically and socially evangelising the under-developed world? The more we feed, educate and provide healthcare, the more the populations soar. Curtail this development aid as well. The rest will take care of itself in 50 years, as the West is not breeding replacements.

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