Euthanasia in Nigeria: a Legal Perspective on the Right to Die
The right to life is universally recognized and protected by various legal instruments, including municipal laws, national constitutions, court decisions, and international human rights agreements.
For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) enshrines the right to life, liberty, and security of persons in Article III. Similarly, the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights (1981) stipulates that human beings are inviolable, ensuring respect for their lives in Article IV.
Other international agreements, such as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), also reinforce the sanctity of human life.
Euthanasia remains a contentious and divisive subject that sparks debates among legal professionals, medical practitioners, moral philosophers, and theologians. Central to these discussions are questions surrounding the extent to which the sanctity of life can be morally justified. Can there be circumstances in which it becomes permissible to violate the sanctity of life, especially when an individual’s continued existence becomes intolerable?
In some cases, a compassionate medical practitioner may decide, often with the patient’s consent, to intentionally end the life of a patient suffering from a profoundly painful and incurable terminal illness. However, it is important to note that the ethical stance on euthanasia varies. For instance, at the 30th General Assembly of the World Medical Association in Madrid in 1987, euthanasia was declared unethical. Yet, in 1993, the Netherlands made headlines by legalizing assisted suicide for terminally ill patients at their request.
From a legal perspective, the issue of euthanasia has also engaged the judiciary. Judges have approached the euthanasia debate from a human and legal standpoint. For example, in the case of R.v.Taylor (1980), Judge Heilbron argued that her public duty was “Not to add to the hell of the accuser’s knowledge of what he had done.”
In any euthanasia scenario, the patient’s perspective plays a pivotal role, as the controversy surrounding this issue emerges from the patient’s viewpoint. The debate revolves around the determination of whether an individual’s decision to end their own life takes precedence over the fundamental right to life. This ethical and legal quandary continues to be a subject of profound reflection and discussion.
Types of Euthanasia
Euthanasia can be categorized into the following types:
1. Voluntary Euthanasia
In this situation, a patient explicitly requests the termination of their life due to unbearable pain or a terminal illness. It’s crucial that the request comes directly from the patient and not from their relatives or caregivers.
2. Involuntary Euthanasia
Involuntary euthanasia involves a decision regarding a person’s death made by family members, friends, or the attending physician. This typically occurs when a patient is suffering from severe brain damage or a critical brain hemorrhage with no hope of recovery, and someone else makes an informed decision on their behalf.
3. Active Euthanasia
Active euthanasia entails intentionally causing a patient’s death in direct response to their explicit request. For instance, in 1998, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan physician, administered a lethal substance to a patient suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) who sought a painless exit. Dr. Kevorkian was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder and imprisoned.
4. Passive Euthanasia
Passive euthanasia, as described by Gifford (1993), involves allowing a patient to die by removing artificial life support systems, like respirators and feeding tubes, or discontinuing medical treatments necessary to sustain life. An example of this is the case of Terri Schiavo mentioned earlier.
5. Physician-Assisted Suicide
This occurs when a physician provides a patient with information and/or a prescription for sleeping pills or carbon monoxide gas, leaving the decision of self-administration in the hands of the patient. It’s often referred to as voluntary passive euthanasia.
Nigerian Law on Euthanasia
In Nigeria, the penal laws are codified and enforced through two distinct codes: the Penal Code, which is applicable in Northern Nigeria, and the Criminal Code, which is applicable in Southern Nigeria. These legal frameworks do not recognize consent as a valid defense in cases involving actions that result in someone’s death.
While the term “euthanasia” is not explicitly used in Nigerian penal laws, there is a provision that implies its prohibition. When one person causes the death of another, it is classified as a criminal offense falling under the category of homicide. The severity of the offense, whether it constitutes murder or manslaughter, depends on the individual’s intent when causing the death.
These laws do not make distinctions based on whether a physician is involved or if the request for the act originates from the patient or the state of the patient’s health. In essence, euthanasia is treated as murder under Nigerian penal laws.
Nigeria’s legal stance on assisted dying and suicide is unambiguous. Section 326(3) of the Criminal Code Act clearly states that “any person who aids another in killing himself is guilty of felony, and is liable to imprisonment for life.” This means that even if a person consents to their own death, it does not absolve the legal responsibility of anyone who assists in causing that death.
For example, in the case of State v. Okezie, a native doctor prepared charms for a person who then invited the doctor to test these charms by shooting him. The doctor complied and killed the individual, resulting in a murder conviction. The act of aiding someone to commit suicide is considered a criminal offense in Nigeria, punishable by life imprisonment.
This legal perspective in Nigeria differs from that of some Western states like Oregon, where assisted suicide is not a crime but is treated as a medical treatment option. In such jurisdictions, as long as the practitioner adheres to the procedural safeguards outlined in the law, they and anyone else involved (e.g., family members of the patient) are exempt from criminal liability and are protected under the law.
However, in Nigeria, there are no such provisions that differentiate aiding in suicide, and the general interpretation of the Penal Code suggests that any form of killing, except for specific exemptions not including euthanasia, carries the death penalty under Nigerian law.
Thus, section 220 of Penal Code provides that: Whosoever causes death –
(a) By doing an act with the intention of causing death or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death; or
(b) By doing an act with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death; or
(c) By doing a rash or negligent act, commits the offence of culpable homicide.
As per the prevailing legal framework in Nigeria, certain factors do not alter the legal consequences of aiding in someone’s death, regardless of their circumstances. This means that it does not matter if the deceased person is a terminally ill patient enduring pain or suffering from an incurable disease, or if their life expectancy is six months or less, or even if the patient or their family members consent to their euthanasia. Under Nigerian law, assisting in someone’s suicide, irrespective of their age, health status, or other considerations, is a criminal offense.
Section 326 of the Criminal Code makes it clear that “any person who advises another to end his own life and thereby encourages him to do so is guilty of a felony, and is subject to a life imprisonment sentence.” In Nigeria, even individuals who attempt to take their own lives commit an offense, and they can be prosecuted by state authorities. Section 327 of the Criminal Code specifies that “any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor and is liable to imprisonment for one year.”
Consent and Criminal Liability
A crucial question arises when it comes to whether the consent of a patient to end their life absolves the physician from criminal liability. Under Nigerian law, the consent of an individual to their own death does not alleviate the criminal responsibility of anyone involved in causing that death. Section 299 of the Criminal Code explicitly states that “consent by a person to the causing of his own death does not affect the criminal responsibility of any person by whom such death is caused.”
The case of State v. Okezie serves as an illustrative example of the legal principles at play. In this case, the accused, a native doctor, created certain charms for the deceased. The deceased, of his own volition, invited the accused to test these charms by shooting him in the chest, resulting in his death. Despite the fact that the accused acted with the consent of the deceased, he was still convicted of murder.
Furthermore, section 222(5) of the Penal Code establishes that “culpable homicide is not subject to the death penalty when the person whose death is caused, and who is above the age of eighteen years, consents to their own death or willingly takes the risk of death.”
When we consider this provision in conjunction with section 224 of the Penal Code, it becomes evident that causing the death of an adult of sound mind, regardless of whether they are terminally ill, in pain, or facing any other circumstances, with their explicit consent, results in a punishment of life imprisonment or a lesser term, a fine, or a combination of these penalties.
Therefore, in the context of the Nigerian legal framework, euthanasia is unequivocally considered a criminal offense, and consent from the individual involved does not exempt those responsible from legal liability.
Nigerian law maintains a strict stance on the sanctity of life, rendering euthanasia illegal under all circumstances. This legal perspective is unyielding and remains a subject of ongoing debate and discussion within the country.
Foluke Babatunde-Lawal is a 300-level Law student at the University of Ibadan. She is not only passionate about learning the intricacies of the law but also applying that knowledge to create positive change in society. Her relentless drive for excellence and insatiable appetite for knowledge drive her to continually seek new avenues for growth. She quenches her thirst for knowledge by avidly reading books, undertaking various courses and trainings, and actively participating in mentorship programs, all with the aim of becoming a well-rounded and impactful legal professional.