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Artur Levin's column

The right to die. What do we know about euthanasia?


Jean-Luc Godard recently passed away - leaving the world via euthanasia.

"He wasn't ill, he was just exhausted. He made the decision to end his life. It was his decision and it was important for him to make this known," a close friend of Godard told the Liberation newspaper, which first reported on the director's death.

Jean-Luc Godard
Photo: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

If you are a fan of French cinema, you must have seen the drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. A film that deservedly won a string of awards, from the Golden Frog of the Festival de la Cinematique to two Golden Globes (and that's excluding any Oscar, BAFTA and Cesar nominations).

The film tells the brutally real story of the incredible struggle and fortitude of a man named Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist, screenwriter, writer and editor-in-chief of ELLE magazine.

In 1995, Beauby went on a car trip with his son. On the way he suffered a massive stroke, the consequence of which was total paralysis of both his entire body, and worldwide fame.

Jean-Dominique spent 20 days in a coma, and woke up with the horrible realisation that he could only move ... his left eye. The man risked being trapped in an immobile body forever.

However, he soon found a way to communicate with those around him by winking. The doctors at the clinic had devised a special alphabet for Bobi, in which the letters were arranged according to their frequency of use in the French language. The speech therapist would slowly read the letters in a special order and if Bobi heard the right one, he would blink once. This meant 'yes', two blinks meant 'no'.

A still from the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

This is how the editor dictated, or rather blinked, an entire book, which became a bestseller and formed the basis of the script. 200,000 movements with one left eye! Bobby died of pneumonia just two days after the book was published. He was 44 years old.

Who knows how long the man could have lived, if that word is even appropriate, in his "diving bell", and what the quality of that life would have been.

Just yesterday you were a successful and popular journalist, writing about fashion, music and celebrities. Everyone in the Parisian scene knows you and respects you. But today you... can only blink. Nothing more. Nothing at all.

Bobi had no choice, but a lot of people do. I'm talking about euthanasia.

The dictionary defines it as "The deliberate killing of a terminally ill person in order to alleviate their suffering".

The term itself is centuries old and it is attributed to the late Renaissance English philosopher Francis Bacon. However, for a long time people were afraid to talk about euthanasia legalization, let alone its "humane mission".

In 2002 the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia.

The law on euthanasia (its official name - "termination of life on request and assisted suicide") was actively lobbied by the Minister of Health Dr. Els Borst. The adoption of the document was accompanied by rallies of thousands of its opponents. First and foremost, the Catholic and Protestant churches. However, up to now thousands of people in the Netherlands enjoy the right to voluntary exit from life each year.

Remarkably, the cost of euthanasia is included in the standard medical insurance that every Dutch person has, and the local Voluntary Euthanasia Society now has 170,000 members. This is more than in any political party in the Netherlands.

In the same year, 2002, euthanasia was legalized in Belgium. Then Luxembourg, Germany, Canada, some states of America and Australia joined.

But the most popular (sorry for the inappropriate word in this context) country where you can voluntarily and painlessly end your life, of course, is Switzerland. This is because euthanasia is allowed there even for foreigners. The cost is about 5000 euros.

Passive euthanasia is allowed, or rather not prohibited, in Israel, Spain, Albania, Colombia and India. Further, in July 2022 a region in China legalised "voluntary death". This was reported in the Global Times.

Authorities in Shenzhen city in Guangdong province have passed a regulation allowing critically ill patients to prohibit medics in writing from administering any resuscitation or supportive therapy.

"If a patient does not want medical staff to 'perform unnecessary resuscitation', the hospital must respect that wish and allow the patient to die in peace," the newspaper quoted the local authority's ruling as saying.

A person's right to die certainly raises a host of ethical questions. However, many doctors say that euthanasia is the only rational choice for those patients who wish to die to relieve themselves and their loved ones of unbearable suffering.

Euthanasia is illegal in Russia.

At the same time, according to official statistics from the Ministry of Health, about 600,000 people are waiting for a place in hospices and qualified palliative care. We probably don't need to tell you that only a few are waiting.

So what is euthanasia?

A humane response to excruciating pain or a "crime against life", as the Vatican believes? I don't have an unequivocal answer. Perhaps fortunately.

Author: Artur Levin
Cover photo: