Euthanasia: The Need For A Better Interpretation Of The Hippocratic Oath

By Lilian Uche, Research Fellow, NIALS

Euthanasia has been one of the highly controversial and volatile subjects in many climes due to human sentiments, moral/ ethical, religious and legal issues surrounding it. Quite understandably, any subject relating to the creation, continuation, preservation and termination of life is naturally bound to throw up a rich dust of overflowing social, economic, religious, ethical, and legal perspectives.

Thoughts on euthanasia usually revolve around medical, legal and moral issues geared towards defining the extent to which a physician may feel obliged to accede to the request of the terminally ill patient to bring to a tranquil end his or her pain and suffering by assisting the patient to die. see

The “right to die” or “how to die” has become a crucial matter of concern for both terminally ill patients and health professionals in recent times due to developments in medical technology and perceptions of death. These perceptions vary within and between cultures, religions, philosophies, medicine and the law. The pertinent question therefore is this: Does a terminally ill individual have the “right” to decide how and when to end his/her life?, why would anyone be allowed to suffer and remain in pains  or why would a person be allowed to lose his dignity and put his caregivers through protracted suffering?

Dr. Eduard Verhagen, often referred to as “Dr. Death” became famous in Europe for having presided over the medically induced deaths of four extraordinarily ill newborns. Verhagen described himself as a bearer of peace and happiness to children. “When these suffering little ones die”, he says, “the child goes to sleep. . .  It’s beautiful in a way. . . . They’re children who are severely ill and in great pain. It is after they die that you see them relaxed for the first time. You see their faces in a way they should be for the first time. see

All over the world, doctors end lives discretely out of compassion without any kind of regulation. Worldwide and Nigeria included, many deaths among newborns are based on end of life decisions, after physicians reached the conclusion that there was no quality of life. Where nothing is done to a terminally ill patient implies hastening the death of the person. Where treatment is withdrawn or withheld, i.e turning off respirators, halting medications, discontinuing food and water so as to allow a person to dehydrate or starve to death or failure to resuscitate a person are different forms of euthanasia. see

The Hippocratic oath which thus says ; “I will not administer poison to anyone when asked to do so, nor suggest such a course” when wrongly interpreted can be seen to be an infringement to a patients right to self-determination which is encompassing of all fundamental human rights of a person. The right to die and the right to live are two separate, although related rights. They are also mutually exclusive in the sense that the right to live concerns itself only with self-determined life and ends with the right to die and the right to die on the other hand begins where life ends in death.

The Nigerian Supreme Court in Medical and Dental Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal v. Okonkwo, held among other things that, ‘if a competent adult patient exercising his right to reject lifesaving treatment on a religious grounds, thereby chooses a path that may ultimately lead to his death, in the absence of judicial intervention overriding the patient’s decision, what meaningful option is the practitioner left with, other, perhaps than to give the patient the comfort?’ It was also the Supreme Court’s decision in this case that a patient has a constitutional right to object to medical treatment on religious grounds. In that decision, the Court held that “the right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion implies a right not to be prevented, without lawful justification, from choosing the course of one’s life, fashioned on what one believes in, and a right not to be coerced into acting contrary to one’s religious belief. The Court also stated that the physician can lawfully withdraw any form of treatment on a patient who by refusal of blood transfusion consented to die on ground of religion.

A careful perusal of this judgment by the apex court in the country shows that the Supreme Court of Nigeria has expressly or by implication approved passive euthanasia in Nigeria by acknowledging a patients right to choose only that in some extreme instances a patient who is in a persistent vegetative state will simply be requesting assistance to facilitate this right of choosing how to exit this world. For further reading see

Further Reading

Medical and Dental Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal v. John Nicholas Okonkwo, FWLR [2001](pt. 44) 542. Pp 219,244-255

Mike C. Obi, A Critical Appraisal of Euthanasia Under Nigerian Laws (2014) African Journals Online, Vol 5, pg 19

Paul Kokoski, ‘Euthanasia and the Culture of Death’,

Bright Eraze Oniha, Oniha Osato Mabel, ‘Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide as Basic Constitutional Rights Under the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria’

Paul Omo Obadan, ‘Euthanasia: The right to die’

Eduard Verhagen, ,press release titled “Paediatricians Call for Nationwide Protocol for the Ending of Life of Unbearably and Incurably Suffering Newborns’