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Decriminalisation of Euthanasia/Physician-Assisted Suicide Abroad: The Position In Nigeria

Nigeria, like other countries, views suicide and/or aiding suicide as a criminal offence and neither euthanasia nor physician-assisted suicide is a justifiable homicide regardless of all the arguments for or against the practice over time. Yet, it remains broadly an uncompromised concept. Having said this, this writer is of the view that adopting the same here in Nigeria would rather be tantamount to building a castle in the air. And, therefore, I would have said otherwise if perhaps euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is holistically a matter of law and non-repugnant to religions, cultures and moral objections altogether. 

How do I mean?

In Afrel, an afrelist believes that killing oneself is taboo and in many African societies, the corpse of anyone who committed suicide is not buried within the inhabited part of the community but in an evil forest. In Islam, Qur’an 4:29 Allah says, “…do not kill yourself as God has been to you very merciful.” In Christianity, the Bible says: “We are mere stewards, not owners of our lives.” For this reason, the possibility of practising the same in Nigeria as it is being practised now in some European countries is quite doubtable.

Now, it is very necessary to begin this discourse by defining the nitty-gritty of this article, that is, Euthanasia & Physician-Assisted Suicide. According to the English dictionary, euthanasia is defined as: ”The practice of intentionally and painlessly killing a human being or animal for humane reasons, especially in order to end great suffering or poor quality of life.” It is also known as mercy-killing. While Physician-Assisted Suicide is an intentional act of providing a person with medical means or medical knowledge to commit suicide.

From the foregoing, the definitions of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, if not entirely accurate, it will be right to say that both are life termination processes. However, euthanasia may be ACTIVE, such as when a doctor administers a lethal dose of medication to a patient, or PASSIVE, such as when life-sustaining treatment is withheld or removed, allowing the patient to die in his underlying position. In either case, someone, other than the patient, is finally responsible for the patient’s death. Assisted suicide case involves more direct action by the person who dies under euthanasia.

For example, in a case of assisted suicide, although a physician may prescribe a lethal dose of medication, the patient administers the medication to himself or herself.

Therefore, it is crystal clear hereunder that Physician-Assisted Suicide also differs from Euthanasia, in which a person other than the patient ends the patient’s life as painlessly as possible for merciful purpose.

Decriminalisation of Euthanasia/Physician-Assisted Suicide in Some Parts of Europe

Presently, euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide has been decriminalized in some parts of Europe such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Estonia, to mention a few. Belgium legalized euthanasia for people over 18 in 2002 and in February 2014, this was extended to children of any age.

In 1995, the Northern Territory of Australia became the first jurisdiction to explicitly legalize Voluntary Active Euthanasia. However, the Federal Parliament of Australia overturned the law in 1991.

In 1994, Oregon the first U.S state and one of the first jurisdictions in the world to officially do legalize physician-assisted suicide. And in 2005, the United state Supreme Court ruled 6-5 to uphold the law after hearing argument in the cases of GONZALES v OREGON.

In 1999, the Texas State passed the Texas Futile Care Law. Under the law, Texas hospitals gave physicians have the right to withdraw life support measures, such as mechanical respiration, from terminally ill patients when such treatment is conceived to be both futile and inappropriate.

In 2001, the Netherlands legalized active euthanasia and assisted suicide, formalizing medical practices that the government had tolerated for years.n Also, under Dutch law, euthanasia is justified (not legally punishable).

In Albania, euthanasia was legalized in 1999. It was stated passive euthanasia is considered legal should three or more family members consent to the decision.

In Italy, though euthanasia is a criminal offence, the public plea is set to change government policy towards it. In September 2006 *Plergiogio Welby* sent a videotape to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano asking to be granted the right to euthanasia. Welby a 60-year-old man suffers from “progressive muscular dystrophy” and is on a respirator, he is fed by a feeding tube and communicates through a voice synthesizer. The president responded with a letter saying that he hoped euthanasia would be discussed in parliament. 

In 2002, the Parliament of Belgium legalized active euthanasia. I must say, the Belgian law allows physicians to perform euthanasia only for patients who are suffering unbearably with no hope of improvement. The patient must make a voluntary, well-considered and repeated request to die, and the request must be put in writing. Other physicians must be consulted to confirm the patient’s condition. Additionally, each act of euthanasia must be reported to a government commission for review.

The recent tragic case of assisted suicide in Oregon of Brittany Maynard, an American who had a stage four malignant brain cancer and an ardent campaigner for “Death with dignity” and who was assisted to die on 21/11/2014, once again brought to the front burner the advocacy for the right to assisted suicide.

Its Position In Nigeria

Needless to say, Nigeria of today operates a dual legal system with regards to criminal matters: the criminal code that applies to the Southern part of the country and the Penal code that applies to the Northern part. In the Criminal law, the codes are two streams that run together, both copiously provided that a person who kills another is liable to be convicted either for murder or manslaughter, depending on the circumstances, even if the person kills that other at his request, he will still be so liable for consent is not a defence to either murder or manslaughter.

The questions now are, should Nigeria legalize euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide at the expense of terminally ill person when all hope of survival is clearly lost? Does criminal code or penal code use the term euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide? Does the Constitution use these terms?

Let us painstakingly peruse section 33 Sub (1 & 2a-c) of the 1999 CFRN (as amended 2011) reads:

Sec. 33 (1): “Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria.”

The key elements are, “every person has a right to life” and “no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life” suffices to say that, no life shall be constrained come what may.

Did other parts of the provision deal with instances, where the right to life may be derogated from? In other words, did other parts of the provisions provide for the practice of euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide?

Subsection (2): “A person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life in contravention of this section, if he dies as a result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary.”

(a) “For the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property.”

(b) “In order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained: or

(c) “For the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection or mutiny.”

Having carefully perused the above citation, a casual observer would have this to say that our constitution is totally not in support of the practice of the euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide. However, in this regard, it should be noted therefore that section 33 (supra) says:

 “every person has a right to life” and “no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life.”

Does the deprivation of one’s life amount to succumbing to the practice of euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide?

Section 308 of the criminal code defines killing, reads: “Except as hereinafter set forth, any person who causes the death of another, directly or indirectly, by any means whatever, is deemed to have killed that other person.” Note: “…by any means whatever” and “directly” or “indirectly.”

Its meticulous interpretations are what we otherwise know as active and passive euthanasia. Remember that I have explained it above. But, do not worry, it will be direct, such as when a doctor administers a lethal dose of medication to a patient tagging with the voluntary consent of such patient or members of his family. On the other hand, it will be indirect, such as when life-sustaining treatment is withheld or removed, allowing the patient to die in his underlying position. In either case, someone, other than the patient, is finally responsible for the patient’s death.

In effect, the above provisions unanimously agreed that neither euthanasia nor physician-assisted suicide is a justifiable homicide under the Nigeria law. The law may be harsh but still the law, this simply expresses in legal maxim as dura lex sed lex.


In any case, the right to life does not mean the right to die. Under Nigerian law, euthanasia is murder simpliciter, and so be physician-assisted suicide. The fact that it is being practised in some parts of Europe is not yardstick, measure or standard for our own country to do the same. Also, you may be mulling over why this writer is so objecting the practice in this manners neither I, too, see the reason why you can say such should be legalized? Life is so important that it should be at all time be cherished. If it is no more cherished, nothing else should be cherished.

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