Today Lord Falconer will present his assisted dying bill to the House of Lords. He’s been careful to label it ‘assisted dying’ rather than ‘assisted suicide’ although in practice there is very little between the two definitions. According to reports, his proposals are based on the model used in Oregon in the US where doctors are allowed to provide a fatal dose of drugs to patients judged to have less than six months to live. The patients would have to administer the substance themselves although they could get help if they were not able to lift it to their mouth on their own.
At one level this might seem reasonable. If someone who is heading towards the end of their life and it has become a burden for them, then why not let them end it a bit earlier in a controlled way?
Maybe I should be supporting such a measure, especially that according to a recent YouGov poll 64% of religious people apparently support a change in the law on euthanasia.
In fact I don’t at all and to be honest I’m angry about this. Firstly because I’m a Christian and my belief is that life is precious. We don’t just kick it about and treat it as a commodity that we throw away when we’ve had enough of it. I’m also annoyed that the media keeps reporting that there is strong support for assisted dying for terminally ill people across most of the major faiths based on the findings from the above poll. If this were true then it would suggest that there has been a huge change in opinion amongst religious believers of all faiths that has gone against the teachings they have traditionally held to. However, if you look at the data in detail, this turns out to be a very skewed analysis of the figures.
The poll did find that 64% of those who align themselves with a religion think the law should be changed so that people with incurable diseases have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, without those friends or relatives risking prosecution. However, of those who actively participate in a church or other religious group, the number reduces to 49%. For those who follow the teachings of their religion, rather than relying on their own judgement, the figure decreases further to around a third. For Muslims this is even lower at 23%. For Pentecostals, it is just 8%. So to simply say that the majority of religious believers support euthanasia is far from the truth.
Lord Falconer may have the superficial backing of around 70% of the public, but does that mean he is right to press ahead with this bill? Most of us would have to be devoid of compassion and feeling not to have sympathy for people like Tony Nicklinson who with his locked-in syndrome was desperate to die. This week two similar cases involving Paul Lamb who is paralysed and a man known as Martin who also has locked-in syndrome are being heard at the Court of Appeal. Neither men are terminally ill, but both want health professionals to be legally protected if they assist them to end their own lives. The situation of Martin in particular highlights the dilemma for relatives over assisted suicide. His wife wants him to die but isn’t willing to help. Instead she wants a doctor to do it for her. We might like the thought of helping our loved ones end their lives if we felt they were suffering acutely, but how many of us would actually go through with it? Most of us couldn’t bring ourselves to kill a pet let alone a spouse or parent. Passing the job on to a health professional is the easy answer, but how many doctors would feel comfortable doing it on the family’s behalf? The answer is very few. The British Medical Association opposes assisted suicide and rejected motions to adopt a neutral stance on the issue in June 2012. They are joined in their opposition by the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians, the British Geriatric Society and the Association for Palliative Medicine. Ask a doctor if they would be happy to kill someone deliberately and you’re unlikely to get a positive answer. Doctors and nurses are trained to preserve life and help people to deal with any condition they might have. Will the high level of public trust with them remain if their approach to protecting life is fundamentally altered?
Although Lord Falconer’s proposals do not go as far as these court cases are seeking to, only allowing for health professionals to assist in someone’s suicide and not kill them outright, doctors would still be put in the position where they had to decide when someone was entering the last six months of their life. This is a huge burden to place on them, knowing that medicine is not an exact science and working on probabilities they will have to make judgments that could potentially be wrong. they will have to live with these decisions and any regrets they may subsequently have.
Perhaps what has made me most angry about what Lord Falconer is trying to achieve, is the way he is going about it. Doctors are overwhelmingly against it, yet he pushes on. Six out of ten Members of Parliament, who debated assisted suicide back in March 2012 opposed or strongly opposed legalising assisted suicide for mentally competent terminally ill people, yet he ignores them too. Instead he chaired the Assisted Dying Commission which produced a report a the start of 2012 looking at how assisted death could take place under a legal framework. The commission was sponsored by Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, with nine of its eleven panel members known to be backers of assisted suicide. It wasn’t exactly an unbiased venture.
Falconer’s relentless drive to see a bill on euthanasia become law shows no sign of waning. Lord Carlile of Berriew QC has been highly critical of Lord Falconer’s attitude: “Sound law-making demands clarity. It cannot be based on euphemisms, verbal evasions or Orwellian spin.” He added that: the proposals would not “pass the public safety test”. Yet Falconer continues his assault on Britain’s ban on euthanasia regardless of opposition from those who understand the risks.
There is a good chance that the bill will not be passed by the Lords, but this will not be the end of the story. Euthanasia will undoubtedly come before parliament again and again in various guises as long as there are people like Lord Falconer who believe that killing the terminally ill and infirm is progressive. No matter how awful the stories being told of those who wish to end their lives may be, sympathy for a handful of people with extreme medical conditions cannot be used as an excuse to make laws and especially laws that would leave thousands of terminally ill people having to decide whether they ought to end it all prematurely or not.
The problem is that if you take God out of the equation and work on the assumption that life is something to be controlled and manipulated then we undermine the nature of our humanity. We become fearful of pain and suffering, of life in its rawest form. We sanitise it and turn death into a clinical exercise. In contrast God offers to meet us in the mess of life to help us deal with it and to encourage us to share our burdens with each other and with Him. Death is fully part of life’s tapestry and not something to be swept under the carpet and dealt with when no one is looking.
So I’m angry. Angry that through Falconer’s bill, life is being treated with contempt and that compassion is being manipulated to bring about harm rather than good. I pray that the Lords will see through this and vote accordingly.
Christian Medical Comment – Don’t be fooled by Lord Falconer’s ‘modest’ assisted suicide proposals
Giles Fraser in the Guardian – I want to be a burden on my family as I die, and for them to be a burden on me