Shirley Justins has been found guilty of manslaughter and will be sentenced later this year. Her friend Caren Jenning has been convicted of accessory to manslaughter. The circumstances leading to this outcome have once again ignited the debate over euthanasia and the right to die rather than suffer the prolonged pain of a terminal illness. These two women obtained and provided a lethal dose of Nembutal to 71 year old Alzheimers sufferer Graeme Wylie, who had been Ms Justin’s partner for 19 years.
At issue when the court made its decision was the question of Mr. Wylie’s mental capacity at the time the decision was taken. Given the nature of his affliction it is a legitimate question, although there has been evidence given that his wish was to die rather than to suffer. Ms. Justins and Ms. Jenning claim to have been assisting his suicide in accordance with his wishes. Mr. Wylie’s daughters on the other hand believe that what they did was wrong. The issue is further complicated by the fact that Ms. Justins stood to benefit financially under Mr. Wylie’s will to the tune of more than $2 million.
While the court has found these two women to be guilty, the broader debate over mercy killing has been revived once again. Are there any circumstances where it is better to die than to live? And who should be in a position to make such a decision? While it remains a vexing question, the real risk is that if laws are written to allow mercy killing it would be close to impossible to provide foolproof safeguards against possible abuse.
Euthanasia, like abortion, is an issue where it’s impossible to reconcile the opposing arguments. There appears to be a strong level of support for the idea that those who believe in the right to die should not be dictated to by those who do not. But the weakness of that argument is that it could be applied to any activity that is against the law. The purpose of the laws against assisting suicide is to prevent those who do believe in mercy killing from imposing their beliefs upon those who do not.
In the end, we all have the right to live, even if we don’t want to, and protecting that right is the first priority of the law.