The right to die not scheduled for tomorrow morning


Guest contribution by Nina Sankari*

Officially, there is no form of medical aid in dying in Poland. Terminally ill patients to whom medicine can no longer offer effective help are legally condemned to die slowly, accompanied by suffering, progressive degradation and dehumanization.

If it comes to our beloved dog or cat, we have a chance to relieve their suffering. The vet will ask us for permission to euthanize our pet in order to shorten the senseless torment when there is no cure. Compassion to the animal, shortening its suffering, is seen as an expression of our empathy, our humanity.

However, when showing such compassion to human beings, a physician faces harsh punishment. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are punishable under Polish criminal law.

The Code of Medical Ethics stipulates in Art. 30 that „the physician shall not apply euthanasia.”

Art. 150 of Penal Code states that “it is a criminal act to kill a human being on his/her demand and under influence of compassion.” Assisted suicide is prohibited by art. 151 of the Penal Code: “Whoever by persuasion or by rendering assistance induces a human being to make an attempt on his own life shall be subject to the penalty of deprivation of liberty for a term of between 3 months and 5 years”.

This religiously motivated ban, as is also the case for abortion, denies the right of individuals to decide about their own life. It is not by chance that the very next article (152) of the Penal Code is about the termination of pregnancy. Catholic Church in Poland strongly opposes both cases for the sake of the same declared value: the sanctity of life, which only God can give, or take back. For non-believers this is an argument devoid of any meaning. This should be reason enough – as is the case regarding any other religious precepts and prohibitions – to apply it according to one's own conscience.

Here we get to the heart of the dispute about who in Poland has the right to decide about the life of a citizen: the citzen him-/herself, the state, or religious institutions? Given the total subjugation of the Polish state authorities to the Catholic Church, the Catholic viewpoint is currently being imposed on all citizens as state law.

Hence, for years euthanasia has practically been a taboo subject in Poland. Which does not mean, however, that euthanasia is not being practiced there. It is not uncommon for physicians to be asked to relieve the suffering of a terminally ill patient; yet, this ususally happens only at the stage where physical pain becomes unbearable. Unofficially, many physicians exceed the limits of safe administration of sedatives and opioid drugs on request of patients in terminal stage of a disease. The number of such cases in Poland may be as high as 100.000 per year. As they are not registered, they remain beyond any control or supervision.

At the same time, the number of Poles supporting euthanasia is constantly growing. According to recent polls, approximately 55% of Poles are in favor of euthanasia. Unfortunately, this is not the case for physicians, whose large majority – under the pressure of the Catholic Church – are against euthanasia and other forms of MAID (medical aid in dying). Although the Catholic Church has recently authorized the withdrawal from “overzealous treatment”, it still strongly opposes euthanasia. Palliative care, which is quite well developed and accessible in Poland, is presented as the only alternative. However, it cannot be seen as a solution for all terminally ill patients, as there are many cases where there is no effective treatment to relieve patients from terrible sufferings.

Thus, expectations of Poles regarding the right to a "good death" tend to deviate considerably from the position of the Catholic Church and its political allies. In this case, just as in other bioethical issues, the Church imposes its injunctions and prohibitions to limit the autonomy of individuals.

In August 2016, the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation, in line with its mission to defend freedom of conscience and promote a worldview based on science and secular ethics, launched a campaign for the right to die, named “To die humanely”. This title alludes to the campaign "To give birth humanely", which was run in the nineties by social activists and supported by media. As result, conditions in maternity hospitals have significantly improved and now women can give birth in decent conditions in Poland. Our campaign managed to attract public attention and in May 2017, an attempt to create the first right-to-die association was made in Poland. However, its registration was not successful; two further attempts followed and eventually, in January 2018, the association was registered successfully. Unfortunately, in the meantime internal issues had appeared, and the association’s members decided to proceed with its voluntary dissolution.

The Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation continues to run its campaign “To die humanely”. We are strongly convinced that all EU countries will eventually grant to their citizens this fundamental human right, the last opportunity to decide on oneself.

In Poland, the right to die in dignity is not scheduled for tomorrow morning. But the fight goes on.


*Nina Sankari is Vice-President of the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation, which is named after a Polish philosopher tortured and killed for his atheism in 1689. The Foundation commits itself to freedom of thought, expression and conscience, a secular state, the promotion a worldview based on rational reason, scientific evidence and secular ethics, and growth of atheist communities in Poland and their cooperation with atheist organizations the worldwide.


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