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

Javier Sánchez Salcedo

Carly Andrews - published on 07/16/14 - updated on 06/07/17

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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