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Tokyo: living wills among ways for dignified death

The president’s report by Jacob Kohnstamm. By Jacob Kohnstamm. Taken from the World Right-to-Die Newsletter issue no. 46, Januray 2005.

The 15th Biennial Conference of our World Federation, held in Tokyo from September 30 to October 3, 2004 was an overall ­success. Our Japanese colleagues from Japan Society for Death with Dignity (JSDD) — and their WF board ­member Dr. Michio Arakawa in particular — have taught all “overseas” ­visitors an unequalled lesson in hospitality; moreover, a ­programme was presented in which many of the participants, if not all, could select their own interests socially and in terms of the program content. Our Japanese friends apparently also knew how to influence the weather gods in such a way that not many of the international guests were aware that Japan was racked this fall by a ­successive series of typhoons and earthquakes!

The board of WFRtDS and all visitors from all over the world who participated in the 15th World Congress, are most grateful for the excellent way the hosts of JSDD have performed their tasks.

On the deliberations and decisions during the delegates’ meeting you can read separately in this newsletter so I will not go into these now. I would only like to memorialise the way I was chosen to be your new President. Of course, I seriously prepared my presentation as a candidate, since it is not a sinecure to succeed Michael Irwin who has directed the WFRtDS the past two years in such an exemplary way. But, also, my opponent for the presidency was no one less then Derek Humphry, in my eyes one of the “godfathers” of our movement.

Naturally, I also have — as a politician — earned my credits in the history of euthanasia, through my 25-year-long involvement as chairman of a political party, as ­member of the Dutch parliament and as member of the Dutch Government. I have proven both in deed and in ­writing to be a strong and loyal advocate for the legalisation of euthanasia in the Netherlands. But my ­contributions — ­especially internationally seen — to the endeavours that bind us, are wiped out by all Derek’s actions in this field in the past. It was finally Derek’s intervention itself during the session that saw me, and not Derek, elected. In his presentation he himself made a passionate and heartfelt plea not to choose him, but myself. That’s how it happened. ( Also, see the letter from Juana Betancor, who had been the Vice President of the WF )

In this, my first president’s report, I would certainly like to call your attention to the following, mainly on the basis of our meetings and mutual discussions in Tokyo.

Each of us is active in one way or the other in achieving our main ambition as WFRtDS: the possibility for an individual to finally be allowed, both in practice and by law, to make a decision in what way, and when, he or she may leave life. Sidney Rosoff reminded us ­during the conference in his impressive speech, of the words of the Tokyo Declaration of 1976.

The exact translation of this ambition may and will differ in every region or country because it depends on local political and public conceptions. It is totally clear to me that the strength we can develop as an international organisation is completely dependent on whether we are successful in not only giving our internal differences a name and debating them, but also whether we accept these as unavoidable.

I personally will not shrink in getting these internal differences on the agenda of our meetings — apart from the “warm bath of mutual understanding” that is so ­typical for our congresses. The differences in vision and strategy concern the question of where the bounds of the interpretations of the main objectives lay, as formulated in 1976 in Tokyo as “the right to die with dignity”. Not only to appreciate these differences together and give them value judgements but to recognize more clearly what main objective binds us, so that we can join forces in our mutual fight — with respect for the existing differences in the specific consequences.

That is why I would like to plead for the installation of an international data bank containing relevant and recent juridical case descriptions and keep that bank up to date by constant members input; and to have this data bank available on our WF web site, ordered by region and or country. In this way, I am sure, one can in the best possible manner get information on where the different regions and countries stand in the discussions, what problems arise in specific situations, how the discussion develops and what strategic choices apply. In other words: every member organization can get information on the identical elements in the joint struggle from the site, can see the differences as to content and the possible choices made in strategy.

Unity in variety — that should be our motto!

Excerpts from other papers given at the Tokyo conference will be presented in later issues.