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UK: “Assisted Dying” Bill Goes to House of Lords

Assisted Dying Bill Goes to House of Lords in UK

Javier Sánchez Salcedo

Carly Andrews - published on 07/16/14

British Catholic bioethicist warns of its dangers.

An "Assisted Dying" bill has been brought to Parliament in Great Britain and will be debated in the House of Lords this Friday. There has been an uproar in particular from various pro-life and religious groups who assert that the bill stands contrary to the true dignity of human life.

Other groups such as the Dying In Dignity organization appeal to a duty of compassion towards the sick and the dying.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says he no longer opposes assisted dying and says the Church of England risks “promoting anguish and pain” by objecting to moves to make it legal, AP reported. Carey said medical advances have created an “ethical turning point.” He said he would back proposed legislation to allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live. Carey’s position is at odds with the official position of the Church of England, which has consistently argued against a change in the law.

In an interview with Aleteia, British Catholic bioethicist David Albert Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in the UK, explained what problems there are with the bill. 

What exactly is the "Assisted Dying Bill," and how is it different from the "Assisted Suicide Bill" of 2013?

The Assisted Dying Bill was introduced by Lord Falconer [of Thornton].  At the same time, there is a bill going through the Scottish Parliament called the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill.  It was introduced last year by Margo MacDonald.  The bills are very similar to one another in that both would allow a doctor to give lethal drugs to someone who was terminally ill and who wished to commit suicide.  One difference is that Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill requires that the person who wants to commit suicide is expected to die within the next six months.  However, because it is so difficult to make this kind of prediction with any confidence, it is unlikely to make any difference in practice.  If someone has a terminal illness, or is simply very frail, then both bills would allow a doctor to give them the means to commit suicide.

Advocates of the bill, such as the Dying In Dignity organization, are denying that "assisted dying" is a form of euthanasia. Is this true? Or is it merely a case of shifting language around?

Euthanasia, properly speaking, is when one person kills someone else out of a wish to take away the person’s suffering.  Euthanasia is “mercy killing.” This is slightly different to “assisting suicide” where someone else may provide the means (for example, the poison), but the actual killing is self-inflicted.  

The phrase “assisted dying” is a euphemism, which can be used to mean euthanasia or assisting suicide.  The Assisted Dying Bill that is in the House of Lords does not permit euthanasia (mercy killing) but it permits assisted suicide.  It is therefore more like the law in Switzerland or in Oregon than the law in the Netherlands or in Belgium.  However, from a moral point of view, there is little difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide.  In both cases someone is killed and the person “assisting” shares responsibility for the death.

Do you expect the bill to be accepted at parliament? What are the dangers of such a bill, both at the individual and societal level?

Similar bills have been rejected by the House of Lords (in 2006 and 2009), but in the last five years many new members have entered the House of Lords and there may also be some people who have changed their minds.  So it is not certain what will happen if there is a vote.  What is certain is that the bill represents a real danger to vulnerable individuals and to society as a whole. 

If a young person who is physically healthy attempts suicide, then people will try to prevent it and will try to persuade the person that life is worth living and that he or she is valuable as a person.  This bill would introduce a double standard so that, if someone feels suicidal but is frail or disabled and has a condition from which they could die, then society will not help the person to live or to value his or her life.  Instead, they will be given the means to commit suicide and abandoned to their fate.  This is a particular danger for people who may feel that they are a burden to others or that their lives are not worthwhile because they are not “productive.” By stating that certain people can be “helped” to commit suicide the law effectively encourages people in that category to think that they are unwanted.

What are the principal arguments in favour of the bill, and what is your response to them?

The two strongest arguments in favor of the bill are from autonomy and from compassion.  In the first place it is argued that people should have choice or self-determination in relation to how they live and die.  In the second place it is argued that something needs to be done to prevent people suffering unnecessarily when they are dying. 

The argument from autonomy is not to be dismissed, because freedom is an essential feature of human nature and not only a modern invention.  On the other hand freedom is and ought to be directed towards what is good for human life, and some choices will be harmful for the person and will undermine the choices of others.  A restriction of my choice may be a protection of my neighbor.  It is surely an illusion to imagine that an act as profound as killing yourself could be a private matter that would have no effects on others.

In relation to the wish to alleviate suffering this is also a great good and a genuine concern.  However, if our concern is to combat pain and the other distressing symptoms of disease, then what is needed is adequate pain and symptom relief.  What is needed is access to adequate palliative care.  In extreme cases this may mean doses of painkillers, which reduce consciousness or which hasten death (though the evidence suggests that expert use of pain relief is more likely to extend life than to shorten it).  Doctors should not be afraid to use high doses of drugs on people who are dying, but their aim should be to kill the pain not to kill the patient.  

What is the Catholic Church’s position on the matter?

The Catholic Church is opposed to assisted suicide as she defends the worth of every person, irrespective of their state of health or disability, or of whether they are highly valued or undervalued by society.  The Church supports all those who work in palliative care who seek to address the needs of the dying without resort to killing their patients.  The Church has never stated that length of days is the supreme aim of life or that people must accept every form of life-sustaining treatment irrespective of the risks or burdens, but only states that death should never be our aim or intention.  At the same time the Church recognizes that the pressures that bring people to attempt suicide can disturb the balance of the mind and reduce moral culpability for the action.  The Church publicly expresses hope for the salvation of those who have committed suicide and prays for them. 

Is there a way forward?

Those in favor of a change in the law often present it as inevitable and as part of accepting the modern world.  However, the success of the movement in favor of euthanasia and assisted suicide should not be overstated.  These acts are legal in only a handful of countries, and the great majority of countries, religious and secular, remain sceptical.  This is in part because of other positive changes in modern society, particularly the disability rights movement and the rise of palliative care, both of which pull in the opposite direction.  What is needed therefore is not conservatism or opposition to change, but support for positive change and for developments in society that offer a hopeful alternative to the advocates of despair.

Carly Andrews is Aleteia’s Correspondent in Rome

Photo by Javier Sánchez Salcedo

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