Ahead of tomorrow’s MPs debate in the Commons on assisted dying, the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, John Davies, argues that we need to invest in palliative care and protect weak and vulnerable people. The full article is published in the Western Mail today (September 10).
On the whole, we do what we can to avoid death or even discussing it. We celebrate longevity, and are rightly proud of having beaten many killer diseases. We joke about “Health and Safety gone mad”, but really we are grateful for regulations that protect our safety and guarantee standards of hygiene, and we are horrified when things go wrong. Murder is the worst crime of all, and suicide perhaps the greatest tragedy that can befall a family or community.
But, let’s face it, death is inevitable; and sometimes, despite all our medical advances, the last stage of life brings incapacity, pain, and dependency. If illness, disability or old age takes away the quality of life, is there a justifiable case for choosing end it? And if we can’t do that ourselves, is there a case for asking a doctor, or a loved one, to help us do it?
This is the proposal that MPs will be debating this week. The Bill to allow ‘Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill’, previously presented to the House of Lords by Lord Falconer, has won a place in Commons through the Private Members Ballot, and is about to receive its second reading.
Arguments about compassion, fear and human dignity are marshalled on all sides. Worries are presented about unintended consequences of allowing people suffering from terminal illness to be provided with the means and assistance to end their lives. The dilemma about how best to value and respect human life is experienced at its most testing when the life in question is vulnerable and apparently helpless.
In places such as Oregon and Washington (USA), Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland where assisted suicide is legal, take-up increases every year. Instead of being limited to the terminally ill, it has been allowed for non-fatal conditions, often well before patients become seriously incapacitated because, in most cases, the lethal dose has to be self-administered. Some people clearly diagnosed as suffering from mental, not physical, distress, have been allowed to end their lives; and some have gone simply because they are old and tired. Half a million elderly people a year suffer from physical, emotional or financial abuse, and it is particularly chilling to realise that the commonest reason for requesting a way out is not intolerable pain, but loss of independence and dignity. Many such people express the well-rehearsed fear of “being a burden”.
Fear of what might happen in the last days, weeks or months is natural and easy to understand. But refusing to deliberately assist ending a life does not mean prolonging it indefinitely in pain, fear or distress. Patients can refuse treatment and doctors will not recommend it if it is futile. Relief is not withheld for fear of the ‘double effect’ of increasingly powerful medication.
Society rightly values independence, personal responsibility, and choice. But allowing people to end their lives simply because they feel they have outlived their usefulness comes dangerously close to accepting that they have no value, and almost creates an expectation that those who feel helpless or useless should just end it all.
In reality no-one exists in complete autonomy or isolation: from the moment we wake up in the morning, throughout our lives, in all that we do, in sickness and in health, we are all part of an intricate and inter-connected web of mutual dependency. It is the best expression of our humanity and our valuing of life to care for one another and to accept care when we need it.
Achieving this in practice does of course require some effort. Greater investment of time, money and skilled resources in palliative care is needed so that pain can be more successfully alleviated. The fears and hopes of the desperately sick and dying must be listened to attentively so that their last days can be in a supportive, person-centred environment, whether in a specialised hospice setting, or with care provided in their own home.
Care for the weak and protecting the vulnerable are hallmarks of a compassionate society. And for Christians, belief that life is a gift from a God offended by injustice, indignity and suffering is fundamental. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, this same God went about valuing the weak and needy, doing good, and bringing healing and relief; not imposing unbearable demands or pain upon others. Ensuring that our society reflects these same values does not require us to provide the means of seeing off the weak and helpless.