Interview with Asuncion Alvarez del Río – Advisory Council Member, DMD Mexico

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Alvarez del Río is an Advisory Council Member of DMD Mexico. Here we talk about her life, views, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Asuncion Alvarez del Río: I was born in a middle class family in the then Distrito Federal (now Mexico City). My parents were Spanish (my father died, my mother lives), but all their children were born in Mexico, so I am Mexican with an important cultural Spanish influence.

We are 6 siblings (I have a sister and 4 brothers), something that has always seemed a privilege to me, especially because we all the siblings have a very close relationship that has been transmitted to our children (my daughters and all my nieces and nephews who get along very well). There is a very special affection among the extended family.

I grew up in a Catholic family (my mother was a Catholic convinced, not only in form, but who really and deeply believed in the Catholic religion) and I was educated in a school of nuns (from elementary school to high school).

For the same reason, I was educated in a conservative way. I was a very Catholic person until I began to have doubts about religion, which increased throughout my studies in Psychology (which is my training) till I finally stopped believing (I considered my self an atheist).

I also began to question a lot of what I learned in my family and in my school and started a change that has resulted in my now being a liberal person.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Alvarez del Río: I studied my degree in Psychology and for many years my main interest was psychoanalysis (Freudian and Lacanian).

Afterwards, I recognized that I had a personal need to work on something related to death, as a way to complete answering the questions that had remained pending when I stopped being a religious person who, as such, I was then satisfied with the answer that a personal life continues after death.

When I didn’t believe that anymore, realizing that there is nothing after death was very disturbing. I needed something more than what I had already found in my personal psychoanalysis and I looked for a way to do a research work on the subject of death to find that answers.

I was fortunate to be able to enter the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to carry out a project about the patient’s experience with death.

I soon realized that my personal concern was shared by many more people, including doctors and patients, and that my personal question needed to become a research topic that was important to pay attention to in Mexico, especially in the field of medicine (I was in the School of Medicine).

At the same time that I was doing my project, I decided to study a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology (I continue the project I had been working on in my thesis research) and upon completing the master’s degree, I studied a doctorate, also at the UNAM in the field of Bioethics.

By then, I had renewed my initial contracts for a year until I obtained the tenure as a full-time professor (my current position) in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health of the School of Medicine of the UNAM. My PhD thesis was about euthanasia.

I concluded it in 2004 and since then I have remained intellectually and personally committed to the topic (we cannot avoid death, but we can remain free till the very end, even to decide how not t olive), following as much as possible everything that happens in terms of news, regulations and academic articles on the subject; not only about euthanasia, but, in a broader sense, about decisions at the end of life and what is called dying with dignity.

Jacobsen: As a member of DMD Mexico, what do you see as its important values to inculcate in Mexican society?

Alvarez del Río: First of all, respect different ways of thinking. This is something we have to go for, because many people respond as if it were a personal threat that others think and decide differently. This is especially evident when the differences refer to religious beliefs on which some positions are based, such as being against abortion or euthanasia.

We have to advance to be a society in which a person who, for example, is against abortion for religious beliefs, can respect that another is not, based on other beliefs. Related to this, in Mexico it is necessary that secularism be respected and that includes politicians who have allowed or favored the imposition of laws based on religious beliefs.

Solidarity is another value to inculcate (on which DMD is ultimately based). Be sensitive to what others may need and this is especially important at the end of life. For a person to have a good end of life, she needs the support of others, in the hospital, in the family, with friends.

And another value that needs to be instilled is honesty. We Mexicans have a hard time being clear and talking about what is happening; we take many detours because we feel that being direct is offensive, but this often leads not to assume something that needs attention and this happens very often when a person is very sick and is going to die. Not talking about what really is happening, leaves the persona with many needs unattended and wishes ignored.

Jacobsen: What have been the important legal victories for DMD Mexico in its history?

Alvarez del Río: The first achievement (not legally speaking) has been to put the subject of the end of life in a visible way and to make more people interested in it or find an interlocutor to whom to go with their doubts and concerns regarding the end of life.

In 2016 DMD conducted a national survey that has been very important because it gives current data that were unknown about what people actually think about being able to receive help from a doctor to die in case of suffering a terminal illness and having intolerable suffering.

The results were, in a way, surprising, because close to 70% of the population supports that this help is possible. This is very important data to support legislative proposals.

DMD has played an important role in the recognition of the right to a dignified death and the autonomy of people in the constitution of Mexico City.

Jacobsen: What are its current battlegrounds for more sociocultural acceptance?

Alvarez del Río: One of the objectives that we intend to achieve is to disseminate the issues related to dying with dignity and the right to die further by inviting society to participate.

In this way, there is the opportunity to remove the prejudices and ignorance on which many people base their opposition to assisted death. Their position changes when they netter understands what it is about and they see that anyone can be in the situation of needing it.

Recognizing, both the important role played by doctors and the Catholic religion in our country, we are looking to have a visible group of doctors and priests who support the association.

Jacobsen: Who have been the most vocal opposition to personal autonomy in terms of the values and goals of DMD Mexico?

Alvarez del Río: The Catholic Church as an institution that strongly condemns that a person decides to die and receives help for that, although we know that there are members of the church who do not share that position.

Based on their religious beliefs, there are groups with economic and political power in Mexico that also oppose personal autonomy to decide the end of life.

Jacobsen: How can external organizations coordinate with DMD Mexico to further the aims of dying with dignity, right to die, euthanasia, and medical assistance in dying?

Alvarez del Río: On the one hand, it is very important to be part of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, which allows us to be in contact with other associations that share our goal, some with more years of experience and with more legal achievements, while others sharing the same obstacles and challenges; in both cases, they represent an important support and source of learning.

On the other hand, it is very valuable to join efforts with other groups of academics, doctors and lawyers in Mexico (in the UNAM, el Colegio de Bioética, el Colegio Nacional, to name a few) that defend the right to a dignified death and share our interest to change the laws and conditions so that all people can choose the best way to die.

Jacobsen: What are some core books and articles, and intellectuals, to pay more attention to now?

Alvarez del Río: DMD published two books in recent years that are worth knowing: 1) Álvarez del Río A (coord.).

La muerte asistida en México. Una opción más para morir con dignidad [Assisted death in Mexico. One more option to die with dignity] and 2) Espinosa Rugarcía A (coord.). Por el derecho a una muerte digna. Por el Derecho a Morir con Dignidad [For the right to a dignified death. For the Right to Die with Dignity].

Among the authors worth following in the media (although they not only write about the end of life, but other bioethics topics) are Arnoldo Kraus, Luis Muñoz, Patricio Santillán, Ricardo Tapia, Roberto Blancarte, Raymundo Canales and Héctor Méndoza.

There are other intellectuals who do not normally write about euthanasia or other bioethical issues, but who express their opinion on this when these issues appear in public attention, such as Bernardo Barranco or Jesús Silva-Heerzog Márquez.

Since March 2018, I’ve been writing monthly in El Semanario (an online newspaper) an article under the general subject: For a better end of life.

I also recommend following the DMD website (https://dmd.org.mx/) in which articles and news related to the themes of dying with dignity and right to die are constantly published and updated.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Alvarez del Río: On the DMD website (https://dmd.org.mx/) you can find the link to make donations and to establish contact for any of these interests.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Alvarez del Río: I feel grateful for the opportunity of having this conversation that can be shared to the public because it is very important that more people know more about DMD and about the subject we are promoting: legal and social changes so that Mexicans can have a dignified death, without pain, in peace, and in accordance to their own decisions

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Asuncion.

Alvarez del Río: Thank you Scott.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by etienne deloraine on Unsplash

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