Rarely a week passes without media coverage of a high profile public figure expressing support for the introduction of assisted suicide (AS) legislation in the UK. Opinion polls are already reported to show a majority of the public in favour of such changes and a succession of tragic cases has appeared in the media to support and encourage this. Thinking people need to understand the key issues and principles involved, whether from the perspective of Christian faith or not. A key issue is the moral, ethical and legal concept of ‘intention’. There is a world of difference between a medical act designed to end life, such as a lethal injection or medicine, and withdrawing a treatment which is ineffective or inappropriate. One is killing. The other is good practice.
For the Christian, assessment of these issues needs to build on the foundation that however poor, ill, disabled or even in pain a person is, his or her life is never futile. Being made in God’s image means that we should respond to each other with wonder, respect, empathy and above all with an attitude that seeks to protect the other person from harm, manipulation and wilful neglect. Even in terminal illness when active treatment has become inappropriate, this does nothing to diminish the value placed on that person.
There are however also powerful arguments which do not depend on faith in God to defend the essential safeguards which still exist in this country. There is common ground – a desire to relieve suffering, the valuing of palliative care and a desire to ensure that all dying patients experience a good death. Compassion, the feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another person, is a major argument for AS. However, the compassion argument is misplaced, because the best way to show compassion for a person is to care for them. A combination of the hospice movement and advanced medical technology now allow pain and distressing symptoms of disease to be adequately alleviated in all but the most extreme cases. Experience shows that once people are comfortable they often change their minds about wanting to end their lives.
Autonomy is important so far as it reflects the unique individuality of each human being. But to use our autonomy responsibly, we need to balance rights, responsibilities and restrictions. Autonomy is not the same as having the right to do whatever we like and the free exercise of autonomy with respect to AS risks decreasing our notion of the worth of vulnerable people. Society needs to balance the ‘rights’ of the tiny number of well-educated and vocal individuals who press for AS against the unintended but foreseeable negative consequences for the majority who would be at risk from any legislation in this direction. Furthermore, depression, confusion, unrelieved physical symptoms, a sense of ‘being a burden’, conscious and unconscious pressures from family friends or society, can all remove a person’s true autonomy. AS is not a private act and if allowed there would be a real danger of people being influenced (intentionally or not) to ask for it.
“’Assisted dying’ is both unnecessary and dangerous. The current law protects patients from coercive pressures and enables doctors to focus on providing good end of life care. It prohibits assistance with suicide, but allows flexibility in its interpretation – it is a law with a stern face and a kind heart. Parliament has the responsibility to protect the public by ensuring that this law is not weakened.” *
* Baroness Ilora Finlay of Llandaff, Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well.
Dr John Jenkins has practised as a Consultant Paediatrician for over 25 years and is a member of the General Medical Council. This is written in a personal capacity and acknowledges material in the following books – Against physician assisted suicide:David Jeffrey (Radcliffe, 2009); Matters of life and death:John Wyatt (IVP, 2009), and web site www.carenotkilling.org.uk