Assisted suicide is painless?
Discussing serious and important issues on a local radio phone-in show is not the best way to do things! This truth has come home to me when I was asked recently to contribute to just such a programme on the topic ‘Euthanasia’. There were some moving stories told on both sides of the matter and the presenter was sensitive, caring and balanced in his treatment of this highly emotional subject. However, I was left with the distinct feeling that some of the deeper and more complex matters surrounding assisted suicide were not being addressed. In trying to address these, I’d like to say two things first: There is a danger that public opinion will be formed purely on the harrowing stories told by those who are in favour of euthanasia; who cannot but have heartfelt sympathy with those whose suffering is deep and untreatable and who does not feel deeply for those who watch their loved ones decline in such a way and who long for that misery to be ended with dignity and without pain? Also, there may be a feeling that the Church and its bishops who ‘pontificate’ on this matter are speaking from their ivory towers, unaffected by the human cost of terminal illness…but we are all human, and we all encounter such suffering. Indeed, my own personal experience as a nurse, as a priest who has waited many times at the beds of the dying and as the member of a family and a son, has served to acquaint me quite closely with such sadness and grief. My own personal view about whether euthanasia should now be an available option is not necessarily shaped by any belief or my faith, although a stress on the absolute sanctity of human life does, obviously, re-inforce an attitude which I believe I would hold even if I were an atheist. And that attitude is that I could not bring myself to agree, at this point in my life, with any legal move to allow assisted suicide in certain cases.
Why is this? Well, first of all, let’s be clear what it is we may be seeking to legalise-which is assisted suicide. This is not the right to die, or the right to commit suicide: both of these things are not illegal as the law stands now. Indeed, people in deep distress routinely take their own lives (although my experience is that, when this happens, it is most often accompanied by deep hurt and anguish on behalf of the family and friends who are left behind with unresolved questions and irreconcilable, and unearned, feelings of guilt). The recent case of Gary Speed underlines my point. No, what is being asked for here is the right to be assisted to commit suicide by another party, be it a family member or the medical profession or some other agency. I may hear some say that it would be willingly done by distressed relatives: but someone else also has to provide even them with the drugs or other means of bringing about a person’s passing. It is this involvement of a second and third party in the suicide which causes me, and others, the greatest concern.
First, there is the opportunity for an abuse of any law and therefore abuse of the person and their family. It is argued that tightly worded and controlled laws would restrict the action only to those who were truly in need of euthanasia, but such strict and particular enforcement is not, in reality, possible: there is always a ‘creep’ for the provision-witness the extreme legal difficulty in determining when a foetus is viable and sentient or not for abortion. There is widespread agreement that fine lines cannot be drawn quite so perfectly. In the case of assisted suicide, one would encounter similar difficulties in determining when a person was mentally fit enough to decide to die and it would be extremely difficult to prevent the unscrupulous applying emotional pressure on someone ‘not to be a burden’. To allow assisted suicide could be the thin end of a very thick wedge.
Likewise, if the medical profession were to be involved in the decisions and execution of assisted suicide, this would fundamentally alter the present relationship between doctor and patient established for aeons by the Hippocratic oath viz. that it is their vocation to save life at all costs. At present, we have relationships of high trust with our medical supporters despite the extremely rare emergence of rogues like Harold Shipman. Is it possible that this trust might be eroded if doctors were responsible for whether we live or die? The weakest in our society would be opened up to greater risk and one can envisage situations where ‘life or death’ questions began to be decided by finance and budgetary requirements.
And what about us? It is my contention that, rather than contemplating assisted suicide, we should rather be talking about greater support and help in all its forms for those who suffer grievous illnesses and conditions, and also greater support and help for those who care for them. Often, it is the sheer frustration and anger that ‘nothing is being done’ to alleviate the misery that brings folk to believe there is only one conclusive way to end this suffering. An unintended but real consequence of the availability of assisted suicide would be pressure on those who do not really want to die to acquiesce for the sake of the carers, or on those who actually want to continue to care and support their loved one to believe that euthanasia is the only compassionate way to deal with their suffering.
As I said when I started, the subject is complex and vexed with high emotion, but the issues I have raised lead me to conclude that allowing even a small crack in the armour of the law which protects us all in this matter would be disastrous and would undermine our sense of ourselves as an ethically sensitive nation. God knows, an individual’s suffering is a terrible thing and to be viewed with deep compassion, but ‘no man is an island’ and the implications of allowing personal decisions about when we die impact on us all.
If you wish to know more about this issue, why not read Bishop Lee Rayfield’s article. Bishop Rayfield is a doctor and former lecturer in immunology.