Thanatos, the god of death, is one of the second generation deities of the Greek pantheon. He is the son of Nyx (night) and Erebos (darkness). He has a twin brother, Hypnos (sleep). The juxtaposition of sleep and death is a common theme in literature. Hamlet saw them together: “To die, to sleep;/ To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”
From Thanatos we get “thanatophobia”: the abnormal, irrational fear of death. It may be fear of the pain and physical agony of dying; or the fear of nothingness after death. If such fear becomes an obsession that cripples normal life, psychiatric help may be necessary.
Another more familiar word from the same root is “euthanasia”. In common language it is called “mercy killing”. It can mean directly causing death by lethal drugs (active) or withholding of treatment (passive). The Netherlands has been the most liberal in accepting euthanasia as a measure to help the patient. The Dutch experience with euthanasia paved the way for further debate and reform in the Western world.
In 1971, Dutch physician Geertruda Postma administered a lethal dose of medication to end the life of her 78-year-old mother. She reported the matter to the authorities. She was charged with mercy killing and was given a suspended sentence of one week. In 1984, Dr P.L. Schoonheim euthanized his 85-year-old patient, who had already signed a “living will” asking to be euthanized if she could not return to a dignified life. When she knew that her future was bleak, she requested to be put to sleep “as soon as possible”. The doctor acceded to her request and then notified the authorities.
In his defence, the doctor pleaded that he had a conflict of duties, between his duty to the patient and his legal duty not to kill. The Dutch supreme court accepted the plea of conflict of duty leading to irresistible necessity. Meantime, the Royal Dutch Medical Association listed the criteria to be observed when resorting to euthanasia. These included the patient’s explicit, persistent request based on full information; hopeless suffering; absence of any alternative; and the concurrence of a second physician.
Euthanasia in the US is closely linked to the name Dr Kevorkian. He coined a name for the assisted-suicide specialist: obitiarist. He also introduced “a death machine” which terminally ill people can trigger to cause their own death. Kevorkian called it “thanatron”. Two patients were assisted by this machine. But then his licence was revoked and he had no access to the chemicals for thanatron. He introduced “mercitron”, which uses carbon monoxide in a gas mask.
Oregon state, while declaring euthanasia illegal, passed the Death with Dignity Act in 1997. This requires a patient to voluntarily administer lethal medication himself, prescribed by a physician. The patient, not the relatives, must ask for assistance to die. The criteria were stringent to ensure the law was not misused.
Canada’s stand on euthanasia came into focus with the celebrated case of Sue Rodriguez in 1992. She was a victim of a terminal disease. She went to court to seek permission to end her life by euthanasia. In a famous outburst, she asked, “Whose body is this? Who owns my life?” She carried her fight to the supreme court of Canada, but didn’t win the case. She committed suicide later.
Meanwhile, India seems to be catching up. The law commission has recommended that “a terminally ill man or a man in a persistent vegetative state can be permitted to terminate it by premature extinction of life”. The Kerala government has received a similar recommendation from its law reforms commission. A test case has been filed this year by 70-year-old Karibasamma in the Karnataka high court seeking mercy killing.
To me, the thought of euthanasia has become less disturbing after I read that King George V of England died in 1936 after a lethal injection that Lord Dawson, the royal physician, administered.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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