One cannot really blame MPs for their “palpable discomfort”, as our online report put it, when they listened to a certain Joe Magro make his plea for the legalisation of euthanasia a few days ago.

Mr Magro suffers from ALS, a progressive disease that could gradually rob him of all his muscle strength, of his ability to speak, eat, move and breathe without support, and ultimately, in his eyes, of all his dignity. Mr Magro wants assistance to end his own life when he reaches that stage.

Faced with a situation that naturally elicits compassion, but with their consciences to contend with, it is no wonder members of Parliament’s Family Affairs Committee were shifting in their seats.

The committee chairman, Godfrey Farrugia, is therefore to be praised for giving Mr Magro a hearing and promising to take the discussion on euthanasia forward in a joint meeting of the family, social and health affairs committees. While he is against euthanasia as a doctor, as a politician he is willing to listen, as he told this newspaper last week.

Euthanasia is generally taken to mean the ending of life by a doctor, at the request of the patient, in order to ease pain and suffering. There is also a major distinction to be made between active euthanasia, which involves the administration of lethal substances to the patient, and passive, the withdrawal of life-prolonging treatment.

Euthanasia is sometimes called ‘assisted dying’. Motives other than the wish to avoid extreme pain include the fear of losing one’s mental faculties and, as in Mr Magro’s case, of a long drawn-out, undignified end.

A recent survey of local doctors found that just over one in 10 had received requests for euthanasia but slightly fewer than that would ever consider granting it. Still, about half agreed to intensifying the administration of painkillers with the possibility of hastening death.

An article in the Malta Medical Journal called for legal and moral guidance for doctors “in this rather difficult area of practice”, as their only guidance right now is their religion or philosophy of life.

Which is another reason why Dr Farrugia’s initiative can be considered praiseworthy. One more is that it stems from a desire to understand a man whose distress is clearly genuine and profound.

Indeed, if a full-blown national debate on this subject is to follow, compassion and understanding should be among its guiding values. While life may be viewed as sacred, and pain as spiritually enriching even, it would be callous to condemn euthanasia outright without a much deeper examination of all the factors involved.

The debate should be wide-ranging and embrace, among others, quality of life, relief of suffering, the mission of the medical profession, efficacy of palliative care, right to self-determination, the idea of a living will, need to protect vulnerable patients, the rights of relatives and the nature of death in relation to both body and mind.

The discussion would need to be conducted with an open-minded attitude, to allow for proper reflection and a degree of societal soul-searching, which is always a healthy exercise in itself.

On a trip back from Africa, Pope Francis had warned against fundamentalism and urged his fellow Catholics not to believe they have “absolute truth”. That note of caution could well apply to a debate like this.

Despite what appear to be his strong moral views on euthanasia, Dr Farrugia told his committee that the charged topic needs to be discussed on an ethical level and not within religious parameters.

It is important that Church teachings should inform the debate. However, they should not determine its outcome. After divorce and civil union, this may well become the most serious test yet of the separation of Church and State.

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