Can we trust the decision over assisted suicide to politicians’ consciences?

SyringeIn the words of Han Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

On Saturday we were given the news from the Telegraph that the Government has decided to give MPs  a free vote on Lord Falconer’s bill introducing assisted suicide. This, according to the paper, will bring legislation a significant step closer, although the bill still has to negotiate a passage through the Lords if it is to reach the House of Commons.

Lord Falconer’s proposals if made law will legalise assisted suicide for mentally competent adults who are terminally ill and expected to die within 6 months.

Despite this bill having already been denounced as failing to pass the safety test by a group of Peers, the fight to bring about euthanasia in the form of assisted dying/suicide continues to batter its way forward bit by bit, refusing to let repeated rejections stand in its way. This is the fourth time in the last 10 years that such a bill has come before the House of Lords, but with each defeat the campaigners for death on demand regroup, look to sway public opinion further in their favour, and return stronger to mount another challenge. Dignity in Dying, (which sounds so much more caring and moral than their previous title of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) have made it explicitly clear in their promotional literature that they ‘will not stop until Britons are able to have the death they want at home in their own country’.

They believe along with Lord Falconer and other advocates that the public is on their side and they are probably right to a large degree. There have been various polls that indicate that the majority of the public want to see the law changed. The Westminster Faith Debates commissioned a YouGov survey last year asking whether it should be possible to help someone with an incurable disease die without risk of prosecution for doing so. 70 per cent of respondents agreed with this. The most popular reason for agreeing was that “An individual has the right to choose when and how to die”.

When we look at the news and see the cases of individuals like Tony Nicklinson and Debbie Purdy brought to court, only the callous would not feel a great deal of sympathy for their situations. These high profile, but exceptional examples combined with television documentaries of terminally ill individuals wishing to end their lives and newspaper backing have won the public over. The fear of dying a painful and protracted death is genuine for many, but just because most people now like the idea of being able to pull the plug if the quality of their life has deteriorated significantly, it doesn’t mean it should happen or is in society’s best interests.  If you asked people whether they would be happier if they didn’t have to pay tax, the majority would probably say yes, but the consequences would be devastating – the country would collapse as a result.

perhaps I  am not giving them enough credit, but the fear I have is that if MPs do in time get a free vote on assisted dying, too many will make up their minds based on emotion and the persuasive tactics of the pro-lobby that have won over much of the public rather than thinking through the implications and morality of such a decision.

The voices against changing the law may be quiet in comparison to the onslaught in favour carried out through the media, but they have a powerful argument behind them.

In the Westminster Faith Debates poll the only group to be consistently against assisted dying was the strictly religious, i.e. those of any faith who believe that there is a God and seek to follow their religious teachings. I unashamedly fit myself into this category. My belief, which is not just restricted to Christianity, 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. The Bible might not specifically mention euthanasia, but it talks of each one of us being made in the image of God. That means our lives and bodies have value even in the midst of illness and pain. Nobody’s life is worthless or meaningless at any point, ever. By treating our lives as possessions that can be clinically disposed of we degrade our humanity and become increasingly fearful of suffering.

However it is not just those of an actively religious disposition who are rightly concerned about the consequences of assisting another person’s death.

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. Two thirds of all doctors are opposed to any change in the law. The British Medical Association opposes assisted suicide and rejected motions to adopt a neutral stance on the issue in June 2012. Only last month the Royal College of General Practitioners carried out an extensive consultation with 77 per cent of respondents wanting the law to remain unchanged. 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. That is partly why we have such excellent palliative care available in hospices all around the country. Will the high level of public trust of them remain if their approach to protecting life is fundamentally altered?

Sarah Wollaston MP, a former doctor tweeted on Sunday that ‘Assisted suicide involves doctors deliberately prescribing with the intention to kill and I cannot support it’.

The disability charity, Scope, came out with an even more strongly worded statement yesterday in reply to the Telegraph’s article:

“Many disabled people will be left feeling very concerned by suggestions that a change in the law on assisted suicide could be one step closer.

“The ban on assisted suicide sends a really powerful message countering the view that if you’re disabled it’s not worth being alive, and that you’re a burden. It provides crucial protection to any person who feels under pressure to end their life.

“There are loud, well-organised and influential, calls to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill adults. But we hope politicians will decide against changing a law that works on the basis of a few powerful, but exceptional cases. “This issue tells us a lot about attitudes to disability. Why is it when someone who is not disabled wants to commit suicide we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide we focus on how we can make that possible?”

Although Lord Falconer’s bill does not allow for assisted suicide purely on the grounds of disability, Scope’s words demonstrate the level of upset and anxiety this bill is causing. And yet in response Andrew Copson, the CEO of the pro-euthanasia British Humanist Association called the Scope statement shameful and disgraceful.

So who will our parliamentarians listen to? Will it be the single-minded campaigners who are seeking to push through legislation and won’t be satisfied until they get their way? Will it be the majority of the public who like to think that an easy way out at the end of their lives might be a good option or will it be the professionals who understand the implications far more than the average person and would also have to decide month after month whether it’s time for someone to kill themselves, sign off their life and then give them the drugs to commit the act?

One final thought. Will the pro-euthanasia lobby call it a day if the bill goes through or will they then take their campaign forward and seek to extend its borders encompassing others who were previously excluded? We’ve witnessed this happening in Belgium where the age limits to assisted suicide were removed last month. It has been legal there for 10 years now and the rapid increase in reported and unreported assisted suicide is grave evidence that the slippery slope is not just hypothetical. Our Lords and MPs will do well to remember this if and when the day comes for them to put their consciences to the test.

Categories: Bible, Euthanasia, Parliament

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4 replies

  1. An Englishman’s home is his coffin…not how I want it to be

  2. There will be economic factors and the grey area of who is mentally competent. Will there be coercion of elderly relatives who may feel a burden to their families particularly where a legacy is involved and the state may take the opportunity to pressure health and social care professionals in an age of scant resources. We start with terminal illness but the goalposts get changed over time as we have witnessed with the Abortion act. Please lets not go there. Human beings have inherent worth even if sometimes we don’t believe it ourselves

  3. Like many who have actually worked in the field of palliative care and chronic disabilities (and I am also an informal carer for someone with considerable physical disabilities) I take the stance of many within the palliative care profession (doctors, nursing, social workers, physios, OTs, counsellors, chaplains etc.) that the law is fine as it is. There is enough leeway in the current law to allow passive euthanasia as well as protecting the vulnerable etc. from pressure to end their lives.

    Yet I think care is needed in approaching this subject that hyperbole doesn’t obscure facts. e.g. the link to the Christian Medical Comment (CMC) blog, takes us to a page full of scary statistics – mainly the use of percentages, which can appear frightening (which I presume is the intention). Yet if one person has an assisted suicide one year and two the next, then the number of assisted suicides has increased by 100% – but it does not mean they are either prolific or routine. The CMC tells us ‘[the graph] shows an increase from 24 cases in 2002 to 1,133 in 2011 – a stunning overall increase of 4,620% in just ten years!’. This is neither a very good use of data or language. The intention is to shock. However if we put this into perspective, 1,133 deaths via euthanasia in Belgium is around 1.46% of the total deaths in the country per year (population of Belgium is 11million with a death rate of 9 per 1,000 – thus the total number of deaths in a year is around 99,000 – 98.6% of which did not involve euthanasia). I am not advocating the legislation of Belgium, I’m just stating that statistics need to be approached with caution.

    Moreover, I do get rather tired of that Christian habit, well expressed by Ned Flanders in the Simpsons: ‘I’m a Christian, it’s my duty to think the worst of people…’. There is a lot of muddle around the subject of end of life care – and medicine full stop in the more vocal Christian media. It can be read that a wicked state is wishing to inflict mass suicide on the vulnerable: yet in reality the welfare of sick, the elderly, the severely disabled is far, far better than when Christianity was a dominant social force in social welfare and social polity. The likes of say Thomas Chalmers in the late 18th/early 19th century saw poverty and ill-health as a test from God and an opportunity for Christians to engage in philanthropy (the conceit of the faithful never ceases to amaze me!). They weren’t overly keen on getting their hands dirty or bettering the lot of the poor except by piecemeal, subsistence charity. Remember it was in a Christian country that starving children were hung for petty crime (see: The sanctity of life has not been a central tenet of Christianity; it is only when Christianity (and in the main non-Conformist Christianity) allied with Humanism – imbibing the notions of the Enlightenment – that we really saw a concerted effort at fostering a fairer and more caring society.

    There has been little comment on the morality of extending life beyond its natural span in the Christian media. Our residential and nursing homes are full of people artificially kept alive via medication and medical intervention when if nature were allowed to take its course they would be granted a dignified death, instead of ending their days not knowing whether they were on Fuller’s Earth or this earth. I’ve been a care worker in residential and nursing care (as well as manager of a residential home and a community social worker) and I’ve seen elderly people, demented, chomping on their own faeces, forced to continue life, when it has neither purpose nor joy. I think it is immoral to give antibiotics or the flu jab or heart medication to people with advanced dementia, when, if nature were allowed to take its course, they would achieve their natural end far sooner and with greater dignity.

    The fact so many people live to ripe old ages (my own parents are 88 and 87 – and live full and active lives) or that health services do not (in the main) discriminate in the care they give, that the lot of the elderly, disabled and mentally ill now is far, far better than it was even 30 years ago, when I began my career in social care, is evidence enough that there is no sinister plot to euthanise the disabled and elderly. It is a testament to the wonder of a welfare state that has made the lives of the sick and chronically ill and the elderly much better than when they were reliant on charity – it is something to be thankful for, but for much of the time, such gratitude is hard to fine.

    Yet there are economic considerations – at present we are content to allow many of disabled and elderly to be cared for by people paid the minimum wage or slightly more. Public sector workers in health care will receive a 1% rise in their pay this year (0% if they are going up a pay increment) – many have not had a rise in several years. In many ways it is amazing that the sick, the elderly and the disabled get the care they do, given we are content to let our most vulnerable members of society be cared for who are paid so little.

    It is doubtful Lord Falconer’s bill is going to become law – yet debate around such issues as end of life care and the morality of medicine – not to end life, but to extend it – needs greater discussion and less hyperbole. ‘Life at any cost’ is not the solution but neither is assisted suicide. Wisdom is what is needed in the debate… Alas it is often conspicuous by its absence in much that said and written on the topic.


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