As a priest and doctor, I have kept vigil at more death beds than I remember.
Death is a reality and it’s natural to fear pain and ‘loss of control’ over those final months, even if the reality turns out to be more peaceful than we feared.
Whereas considerable attention is given to the desire to end life at the time of one’s choosing, less is said about those who fear that the legalisation of assisted suicide will contribute to a climate in which many may feel obliged to ‘opt out’.
The recent case of a Dutch doctor who was vindicated after asking a dementia patient’s family to restrain her when she resisted a lethal injection, has illustrated the ugly reality of state-sponsored killing. The ‘slippery slope’ is a horrible reality in countries which have introduced euthanasia. There is an uneasy connection between a supposed ‘right’ to die and a duty to die.
It was Baroness Warnock who uttered the words: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service... It is argued that such provision [assisted suicide] might make elderly people feel they have a duty to die. So it should.”
When a House of Lords committee looked at a possible change in the law, they concluded “it was virtually impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law in the UKcould not be abused.
“We were also concerned that vulnerable people – the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed – would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death”.
John Cameron argues that “modern medicine is preventing nature taking its merciful course.” (Scotsman 200, 8 February).However, no sensible person opposes withdrawal or withholding of burdensome or futile treatment from a dying person – there is a serious difference between withholding a procedure, foreseeing but not intending the person will die sooner, and deliberately hastening death.
The right-to-die movement uses misleading language to sanitise what is being campaigned for, most notably the euphemistic ‘right-to-die’. But the debate is about whether or not we have a right to be killed. Suicide is a tragedy and we try to prevent it. Society increasingly only sees suicide as a problem if the victim is healthy, whilst seeing it as a reasonable answer to living with a serious disability.
What is the more compassionate response? Elimination of the most vulnerable members of society or strengthening palliative care?
The hospice movement grew because society saw the need to support those facing their final weeks and months.The German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland famously said: “If the physician presumes to take into consideration in his work whether a life has value or not, the consequences are boundless and the physician becomes the most dangerous man in the state .”
This warning should now be heard.
Frank Wilson is a former GP and now Roman Catholic chaplain to St. Margaret’s Hospice, Clydebank.