Legalization of euthanasia brings new profession along – death assistant

Two persons recently went on trial in connection with the unlawful use of euthanasia in Germany and United States. Stephen Letter, the 27-year-old nurse at the Bavarian hospital, admitted to killing 29 patients with injections. He was to be convicted earlier on Monday this week. Last Friday, Charles Cullen, a nurse, received 11 consecutive life terms for killing at least 22 patients in New Jersey nursing homes and hospitals.

For decades the public have been debating as to the best way of calling the “death assistants.”

Are they serial killers or providers of mercy killing to terminally ill patients? Helping patients diagnosed with incurable diseases to take their own life is not a crime in a number of countries provided that certain rules applicable to euthanasia are observed.

Stephen Letter used to work as a nurse at the hospital in the town of Sonthofen in the Bavarian Alps. He was arrested in July 2004 after some of the hospital’s drugs and a fax machine went missing. The police were astounded when Letter admitted murdering 29 patients by injecting them with lethal doses of medications. “I would like to acknowledge my guilt and make it quite clear that under no circumstances my actions can be justified. I knew I was violating laws, but I did it out of sincere, deeply felt compassion,” said Letter.

The case has come as a shock to hospital authorities, who failed to notice that some of the patients had died prematurely. Meanwhile, Letter admitted to murdering patients for at least one year. Prosecutors say Letter is severely overweight and has an acute eating disorder. He had acted out of low self-esteem and self-pity – classic traits among serial killers – according to psychologists.

“His actions were indiscriminate and aimless,” said Wilhelm Seitz, a lawyer representing relatives of 10 of the dead. “Not all of the patients were seriously ill, and he had had no contact with some of them,” said he.

The verdict in the case will be a second ruling to be handed down this March with regard to euthanasia. Last Friday, Charles Cullen, a nurse, was found guilty of murdering 22 patients in New Jersey nursing homes and hospitals. Cullen, 46, pleaded guilty to murdering 22 people in New Jersey. He will be sentenced later for seven murders and three attempted murders in Pennsylvania. Cullen stood quietly keeping his eyes closed for most part of the hearing while relatives of his victims angrily branded him “garbage” and a “monster.” The accused was also wearing a bulletproof vest.

Cullen claimed to have claimed to kill up to 40 people. An exact number of victims is still unclear as Cullen says he can not recall all the details and some medical records have been destroyed.

Shortly after being arrested, Cullen told the police he had murdered out of mercy. He said his actions were aimed at putting an end to suffering of the terminally ill patients. Cullen escaped the death penalty after making a deal with the authorities. He promised to help investigators solve his killings. In exchange, prosecutors in New Jersey agreed not to seek the death penalty.

By the bye, Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. Doctor Death, a U.S. pathologic anatomist, has become the most notorious adherent of euthanasia. He reportedly helped more than a hundred of the terminally ill kill themselves. Kevorkian did not conceal his activities, he videotaped his “killings.”

In 997, he made a tragic medical error by putting to death two women who were not terminally ill. One of the women had osteoporosis and the other one had multiple sclerosis. According to findings of experts from the University of South Florida who examined the remains of 69 patients whom Kevorkian helped to die in Michigan from 1990 to 1998,75% of the patients did not have life-threatening conditions. Moreover, 5% of his “patients” were considered virtually sound.

Kevorkian was found guilty as charged and sentenced to 25 years in prison on April 13, 1999. Prosecutors demanded he should be sentenced to life in prison. However, the court took into account that the accused was 75 years old at the time of sentencing.

Euthanasia or a mercy killing has been known since prehistoric times. But the term itself was first used by Francis Bacon in the 16th century for defining the so-called “easy death.”

There are two types of euthanasia. In passive euthanasia doctors deliberately withhold treatment of a patient while active euthanasia means that measures are taken to end life of a patient, usually by the administration of a drug or other active steps leading to a quick death. Passive euthanasia is quite widespread in Russia too.

According to data published by International Medical Journal (1988), 40% of all deaths of patients result from either a joint decision to terminate the life by withholding treatment or by the administration of a drug to enhance death.

Public movement to legalize euthanasia took shape in 1935 when the first “Society of Euthanasia” was formed in the United States. The Nazis legalized euthanasia at the end of the 1930s. In 1984, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled that voluntary euthanasia could be acceptable provided that a doctor followed the rules set by the Royal Dutch Medical Association. In 2002, the Netherlands adopted the law on euthanasia. Pursuant to the law, a doctor may help a patient to end his life but the former must meet certain requirements stipulated by the law. After carrying out an act of euthanasia, a doctor is to report the case to a special commission. The case will be closed if no violations are found by the commission, otherwise the authorities will launch an inquiry into the case.

Belgium became the second E.U. country to legalize euthanasia the same year. As by law, a person above 18 years old may ask for measures to be taken to end his life if he has an incurable disease and suffers from “constant physical and psychological pain.” Euthanasia may be performed by a physician upon receiving several written requests from his patient.

According to statistics by the Belgian Committee on Euthanasia, 400 cases of “mercy killing” were registered in Belgium in 2005. The official figures indicate that 40% of all euthanasia cases were performed by doctors during house calls. Euthanasia seemed to enjoyed great popularity in Belgium. Last April saw the marketing of a euthanasia kit via a drugstore chain. The kit costs about 60 euros. Among other things deemed necessary for a lethal injection, the kit comprises a disposable syringe with a dose of poison. However, the kit is available by prescription only. Besides, the kit may be picked up only by a physician who filled the prescription.

The Russian law rules out the possibility of killing a patient at his own request. However, a patients has the right to cancel any kind of treatment and thus subject himself to euthanasia. There are some cases of euthanasia decided in a court of law. The court in the city of Rostov has recently handed down the decision on the case of two girls, the 17-year-old Kristina Patrina and 14-year-old Marta Shkermanova.

The girls were sentenced to 5 and 4 years in prison respectively for murdering a 34-year-old woman who had been paralyzed after sustaining injuries in a car crash. According to the defendants, the woman suffered from severe pain and asked them to terminate her life.


Translated by Guerman Grachev

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov