UN Considers Euthanasia and New Treaty on Aging

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© Heidi Bratton Photography

The Holy See condemned attempts to inject euthanasia into the right to health and Latin American and Caribbean delegations called for a new UN treaty at two recent UN meetings on the rights of the elderly.

At the Human Rights Council in Geneva the Holy See representative said his delegation took “strong exception” to a report at the meeting which referred to “issues of patient autonomy in respect of deciding to end life.” He urged doctors and scientists to resist “practices that shorten the life of the aged and sick, practices that would turn out to be, in fact, forms of euthanasia.”

At the Open Ended Working Group on Aging in New York, nations disagreed on whether a new treaty would best protect the elderly. The United States recommended the appointment of a special rapporteur and the European Union suggested recourse to the existing treaty body system, which is made up of appointed committees. 

Delegates to both meetings grappled with the fact that the world will have 2 billion elderly people by 2050, up from 600 million in 2002. According to UN projections, the percentage of elderly in almost every country is rising faster than ever before.

Israel, where the pace of aging is the fastest in the world, emphasized the need to preserve people’s independence and autonomy. Japan, the world’s oldest nation, argued that responses should be tailored to the situation in each country and designed with the participation of civil society, the private sector, and older persons themselves. Neither Israel nor Japan endorsed a specific role for the UN.

India lamented “gradual but definite withering of joint family systems,” resulting in “a large number of parents [who] face the prospect of their families not really being in a position to care of them. This has also exposed them to lack of emotional, physical and financial support.” Brazil decried the problem of violence against the elderly in their own homes.

 “It is one thing to advocate for the care and protection of the elderly from abuse in the home, but certainly it is not enough to avoid harm,” observed Fr. Chris Mahar, a doctoral candidate at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven focusing on euthanasia. He told the Friday Fax that nations also need to address the problem of “physician assisted suicide in the name of ‘human rights’ [which] ultimately sends the message that [the elderly’s] participation in the community is no longer necessary, perhaps even unwelcome.”

Arguments against a new treaty include appeals to better observe existing human rights conventions. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs runs the UN Program on Aging and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights says it is attentive to “multiple discrimination” including the way that advanced age impacts the exercise of recognized rights.

The American non-profit AARP argues that such programs are not enough and that a new treaty is needed to “guide policy making.” AARP was one of the non-governmental organizations that lobbied for the creation of the working group, which was established in December 2010.

This article is courtesy the "Friday Fax" of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM).
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