Euthanasia: For and Against
"We mustn't delay any longer … swallowing is difficult … and breathing, that's also difficult. Those muscles are weakening too … we mustn't delay any longer."These were the words of Dutchman Cees van Wendel de Joode asking his doctor to help him die. Affected with a serious disease, van Wendel was no longer able to speak clearly and he knew there was no hope of recovery and that his condition was rapidly deteriorating.
Van Wendel's last three months of life before being given a final, lethal injection by his doctor were filmed and first shown on television last year in the Netherlands. The programme has since been bought by 20 countries and each time it is shown, it starts a nationwide debate on the subject.
The Netherlands is the only country in Europe which permits euthanasia, although it is not technically legal there. However, doctors who carry out euthanasia under strict guidelines introduced by he Dutch Parliament two years ago are usually not prosecuted.
The guidelines demand that the patient is experiencing extreme suffering, that there is no chance of a cure, and that the patient has made repeated requests for euthanasia. In addition to this, a second doctor must confirm that these criteria have been met and the death must be reported to the police department.
Should doctors be allowed to take the lives of others? Dr.Wilfred van Oijen, Cees van Wendel's doctor, explains how he looks at the question:"Well, it's not as if I'm planning to murder a crowd of people with a machine gun. In that case, killing is the worst thing I can imagine. But that's entirely different from my work as a doctor. I care for people and I try to ensure that they don't suffer too much. That's a very different thing."
Many people, though, are totally against the practice of euthanasia. Dr. Andrew Ferguson, Chairman of the organisation Healthcare Opposed to Euthanasia, says that "in the vast majority of euthanasia cases, what the patient is actually asking for is something else. They may want a health professional to open up communication for them with their loved ones or family - there's nearly always another question behind the question."
Britain also has a strong tradition of hospices - special hospitals which care only for the dying and their special needs.
Cicely Saunders, President of the National Hospice Council and a founder member of the hospice movement, argues that euthanasia doesn't take into account that there are ways of caring for the dying. She is also concerned that allowing euthanasia would undermine the need for care and consideration of a wide range of people: "It's very easy in society now for the elderly, the disabled and the dependent to feel that they are burdens, and therefore that they ought to opt out. I think that anything that legally allows the shortening of life does make those people more vulnerable."
Many find this prohibition of an individual's right to die paternalistic. Although they agree that life is important and should be respected, they feel that the quality of life should not be ignored. Dr. Van Oijen believes that people have the fundamental right to choose for themselves if they want to die: "What those people who oppose euthanasia are telling me is that dying people haven't the right. And that when people are very ill, we are all afraid of their death. But there are situations where death is a friend. And is those cases, why not?"
But "why not?" is a question which might cause strong emotion. The film showing Cees van Wendel's death was both moving and sensitive. His doctor was clearly a family friend; his wife had only her husband's interests at heart. Some, however, would argue that it would be dangerous to use this particular example to support the case for euthanasia. Not all patients would receive such a high level of individual care and attention.
According to the writer Walter Ellis, author of a book called the Oxbridge Conspiracy, Britain is still dominated by the old-boy network: it isn't what you know that matters, but who you know. He claims that at Oxford and Cambridge Universities (Oxbridge for short) a few select people start on an escalator ride which, over the years, carries them to the tops of British privilege and power. His research revealed that the top professions all continue to be dominated, if not 90 per cent, then 60 or 65 per cent, by Oxbridge graduates.
And yet ,says Ellis, Oxbridge graduates make up only two per cent of the total number of students who graduate from Britain's universities. Other researches also seem to support his belief that Oxbridge graduates start with an unfair advantage in the employment market. In the law, a recently published report showed that out of 26 senior judges appointed to the High Court last year, all of them went to private schools and 21 of them went to Oxbridge.
But can this be said to amount to a conspiracy? Not according to Dr. John Rae, a former headmaster of one of Britain's leading private schools, Westminster:"I would accept that there was a bias in some key areas of British life, but that bias has now gone. Some time ago - in the 60s and before - entry to Oxford and Cambridge was not entirely on merit. Now, there's absolutely no question in any objective observer's mind that entry to Oxford and Cambridge is fiercely competitive."However, many would disagree with this. For, although over three-quarters of British pupils are educated in state schools, over half the students that go to Oxbridge have been to private, or "public" schools. Is this because pupils from Britain's private schools are more intelligent than those from state schools, or are they simply better prepared?
On average, about ￡5,000 a year is spent on each private school pupil, more than twice the amount spent on state school pupils. So how can the state schools be expected to compete with the private schools when they have far fewer resources? And how can they prepare their pupils for the special entrance exam to Oxford University, which requires extra preparation, and for which many public school pupils traditionally stay at school and do an additional term?
Until recently, many blamed Oxford for this bias because of the university's special entrance exam (Cambridge abolished its entrance exam in 1986). But last February, Oxford University decided to abolish the exam to encourage more state school applicants. From autumn 1996, Oxford University applicants, like applicants to other universities, will be judged only on their A level results and on their performance at interviews, although some departments might still set special tests.
However, some argue that there's nothing wrong in having elite places of learning, and that by their very nature, these places should not be easily accessible. Most countries are run by an elite and have centres of academic excellence from which the elite are recruited.
Walter Ellis accepts that this is true:"But in France, for example, there are something like 40 equivalents of university, which provide this elite through a much broader base. In America you've got the Ivy League, centred on Harvard and Yale, with Princeton and Stanford and others. But again, those universities together - the elite universities - are about ten or fifteen in number, and are being pushed along from behind by other great universities like, for example, Chicago and Berkeley. So you don't have just this narrow concentration of two universities providing a constantly replicating elite."
When it comes to Oxford and Cambridge being elitist because of the number of private school pupils they accept, Professor Stone of Oxford University argues that there is a simple fact he and his associates cannot ignore:"If certain schools do better than others then we just have to accept it. We cannot be a place for remedial education. It's not what Oxford is there to do."
However, since academic excellence does appear to be related to the amount of money spent per pupil. This does seem to imply that Prime Minister John Major's vision of Britain as a classless society is still a long way off. And it may be worth remembering that while John Major didn't himself go to Oxbridge, most of his ministers did.