Are doctors about to throw in the towel over euthanasia?

There were two things that happened at he end of last week that saddened me and both involve doctors.  The first was the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ’s) decision to run the headline on its cover, ‘Why medical bodies should be neutral on assisted dying’ and the  second was the ruling in the case of Dr Richard Scott who was accused of pushing his Christian views onto a patient during a consultation in an unprofessional manner.  I’ll cover Dr Scott’s case in a future post.

Assisted dying is back in the news again this week with Monday’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on Tony Nicklinson and his desire to have his life ended because he suffers from locked-in syndrome.  I’ve written about his situation before and the lead up to his High Court hearing , which began yesterday.  The outcome will determine whether he can legally have someone terminate his life for him without risk of prosecution.  If he wins it will set a new precedent and potentially pave the way for others to have their lives ended prematurely.

Mr Nicklinson joined Twitter last week and since then has been petitioned by many people asking him to reconsider as well as receiving a huge amount of support for what he is doing.

This is an incredibly important case and if he wins the implications will be huge, with euthanasia laws shifting beyond even what many right-to-die campaigners have been calling for.   Mr Nicklinson is not terminally ill and yet he is asking for someone to kill him when he has decided that he has had enough.

Currently the official stance of the British Medical Association (BMA) which represents doctors is that it is opposed to assisted dying and euthanasia.  The BMJ which is editorially independent, but sent to all BMA members each week, has challenged this position by running an editorial stating that the time has come for doctors to take a neutral position on the issue.  That would mean removing opposition to any changes in the law on this issue.  This is an extract from the piece:

‘The depth of personal, professional and religious feeling on this matter draws parallels with abortion reform in the 1960s.  Although doctors controlled the means to perform abortions, they did not control the decision to change the law.

‘The same is true for assisted dying: doctors hold the means but the decision rests with society and its representatives in parliament.  A change in the law, with all the necessary safeguards, is an almost inevitable consequence of the societal move towards greater individual autonomy and patient choice.

‘What view should the profession take while this shift is under way?  Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD), wants the BMA and royal colleges to move their position from opposition to neutrality.  HPAD’s chair explains the  aim is  “studied neutrality” not indifference.  It is intended to communicate neither support nor opposition to a change in the law, to reflect the diversity of personal and religious views among doctors and their patients.  At this year’s annual policymaking meeting the BMA will debate several motions urging neutrality.  The BMJ supports this call.’

This is a disappointing and worrying development, especially as the reasons for the change appear mainly to be in response to pressure from pro-euthanasia groups.  The editorial admits that in a recent survey only a third of 1000 doctors asked would want the option of assisted dying for themselves.

It’s almost as if the medical profession is beginning to lose its nerve on this issue having been opposed to it for such a long time.  Well funded pro-euthanasia groups and the constant drip-drip effect of high profile and sometimes heartbreaking cases that make it into the media where severely disabled people such as Tony Nicklinson are looking to end their lives are continuing to shift public opinion.  It looks as though some doctors’ leaders are becoming increasingly concerned that they appear out of touch with public sentiment placing this above their role to uphold human life.

To become neutral on this subject is to let society down.  Doctors understand the complexities of life and death probably better than any other group.  If they decide to wash their hands and stand back from such an issue of fundamental importance, they are letting everyone down including their profession in an alarmingly irresponsible way.

Once again the case of Tony Nicklinson and the BMA’s actions to consider changing their stance on euthanasia are examples of how as a society we increasingly look to value the ‘rights’ of an individual over those of a society,  Individualism dictates that what I want is more important than what is best for all of us.

This may sound harsh but Mr Nicklinson’s reasons for wanting to die are mostly selfish.  Although it is easy to see why he feels the need to choose when he dies, if he wins his case someone will have to murder him to give him what he longs for and the person who carries it out will have to live with that for the rest of their life.  If he wins then others are bound to follow after him wanting the same.  Inevitably somewhere along the line, sooner or later, someone will choose to die for reasons that aren’t in their best interest.

Valuing life is a fundamental belief for  Christians as we see it as a gift from God and remember how Jesus gave up his life for every other human, so that we can live fully in relationship with his Father.  Life apart from God runs the risk of becoming disposable.  We seek to become masters of it aiming to control it and to perfect it as much as possible, but as a body ages or ceases to function correctly, it begins to lose its value to the point of becoming worthless at which point the logical conclusion is to disgard it.

I sincerely hope and pray that Tony Nicklinson’s case is rejected and that the BMA does not change its stance on euthanasia.  If we choose to head down this route we play a dangerous game of constantly having to decide when life loses its value.  It’s not a pleasant thought and I for one don’t want to see us going there.

If you want to read more on these issues, Dr Peter Saunders at Christian Medical Comment has written extensively on them.

Categories: Human rights, Morals & ethics, The law & legal issues

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