Three interesting developments have arisen in different parts of the world. First, it is great to be able to report that the South African VES has returned to membership in the World Federation— although, technically, this has to be regarded as being “interim” until the Delegates Meeting in Tokyo, in September 2004, gives its formal approval. We are now 38 member societies in 23 countries.
Then, the official report from Oregon, issued in March, on physician-assisted suicide in that state, was most encouraging, especially as it noted that, in 2002, 33 different physicians were involved in writing prescriptions for lethal medications for 58 terminally-ill patients who qualified for such assistance under the strict guidelines which exist. No evidence of “slippery slopes” or of a single irresponsible physician being overgenerous with issuing prescriptions! We must be appreciative of these annual reports from Oregon. Regular official information on physician-assisted dying, wherever it occurs, is very important. As I often say to audiences —“If good laws on assisted dying can be adopted in Belgium, The Netherlands and Oregon, then why not here?”
Next, the pro-choice living will, produced recently by the British VES, has interesting possibilities. Like the usual document, this still naturally allows someone to “refuse medical treatment aimed at prolonging or artificially sustaining (my) life”. Unfortunately, some opponents of living wills, especially certain religious leaders, consider such statements as “suicidal”, and so condemn them. But, this pro-choice document can be used, equally well, by those who “wish to be kept alive for as long as reasonably possible and consent to all appropriate medical treatment”. For the British VES, this demonstrates their concern that everybody should be able to choose their specific treatment option at the end of life, in the event that they lose the mental capacity to make such decisions. And, it is hoped that the pro-choice living will become widely accepted as a useful tool for the important discussions which are increasingly necessary between individuals, their physicians and their families. After all, personal “choice” is surely the basis for all laws for legalized physician-assisted dying?
Turning now to various World Federation matters: Member Societies presently pay 1% of their income, up to a maximum of US$250, as their annual membership dues. Annelies Plaisant, our Treasurer, has been sending out requests for these dues to all Societies during the first half of this year and, I hope, that all have quickly paid up. It is worth noting, perhaps, that if these annual dues have not been paid by the autumn, a Member Society, according to our By-Laws, should no longer be in the World Federation!
Membership dues are vital for the World Federation because we cannot be certain of getting general donations. However, even if every Society pays what it should, only a few thousand dollars are collected annually. And, this money is needed for essential purposes such as our Newsletter and paying a few important travel grants.
When the Board met in Brussels, last September, it agreed in principle to raise the maximum for membership dues to $500. Of course, only the much larger member societies will be affected, but, if the Tokyo Delegates Meeting next year approves this increase, the additional income will be extremely useful.
Your Board of Directors keeps in close contact, between its occasional meetings, with frequent e-mails. In recent months, one matter being seriously considered is the possibility of “Associate Members”, perhaps for very small RTD Societies, which might wish to join the World Federation in the future, but mainly for related organizations such as humanist or human rights groups. The Board is expecting to meet in Luxembourg this October, when the European Division/Right to Die Europe will be holding its annual meeting. Then, a motion on associate membership may be prepared for consideration at the Delegates Meeting in Tokyo.
While thinking about Europe, I am pleased to report that, last October in Paris, the Council of Europe’s Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee held a “Hearing on Euthanasia”, and, on behalf of the World Federation, I was officially invited to testify on the need for legislation for physician-assisted dying. Also, Jacqueline Herremans gave a very eloquent statement on developments in Belgium: and, other important contributions were made by Elke Baezner— on the situation in Switzerland— and by Rob Jonquiere and his Dutch colleagues. At the end of the debate, the Rapporteur, Dick Marty, a Swiss parliamentarian, noted that “Euthanasia in Europe is a reality … which can be expected to increase as modern medicine prolongs life … the Belgian and Dutch models should be looked at with interest and respect … there is little transparency in this area (except in Belgium and The Netherlands)”. This Committee’s report will not be issued for many months: hopefully, as a minimum, it will propose that national surveys (like the Remmelink reports, in The Netherlands, in the past decade) should be undertaken throughout Europe.
Officially, last December, the World Federation made an application to the Council of Europe for consultative status as a non-governmental organization—however, a final decision about this will not be known before next September.
Another decision by the Board is to issue an annual statement (limited to about one thousand words) every December, on Human Rights Day, which will describe what has happened around the world, in the past year, to support “a person’s right to a dignified death” and what is likely to happen in the next twelve months. During this coming August, I will be asking all Member Societies for information on how they are achievingtheir individual goals, and their future expectations.
With this data, I will prepare a draft statement for the Board to review in October. Juana Betancor, our Vice-President, has prepared the initial draft for a universal manifesto, in support of assisted dying, which can be signed by individuals everywhere. This is now being reviewed by the Board, and will be circulated to member societies later in the year. Eventually, this manifesto can be displayed on our various websites as well as being used for collecting signatures.
The basic criteria for all Board activities should be do they help the development of the World Federation and its member societies, increasing our combined public status and reputation? We are truly an international non-governmental organization, increasingly recognized as representing the views of individuals who campaign to have the right to make their own choices as to the manner and timing of their own deaths. When I became President last September, I invited comments on any relevant matter — some of you did contact me — and I hope that, if you have a helpful suggestion, or any kind of query, you will not hesitate to e-mail me (email@example.com).
Dr. Michael Irwin , of England, is the president of the World Federation for 2002– 2004.