In the United Kingdom, Parliament will enter into yet another euthanasia debate later this year. Baronness Illora Finlay argues that the proposed bill brings danger not comfort. Simon Stevens, a disability issues consultant, questions whether the public really understand what the right to die debate is about, and what effect it will have on disabled people.
Bills proposing euthanasia or assisted suicide have been proposed in Germany, Maine and California very recently. In Belgium, where euthanasia is already legal, doctors have been found euthanazing patients without knowledge or consent. Even a 24 year old healthy woman is scheduled to die there. Assisted suicide should not be for those who are in the fog of depression. Countries that have introduced euthanasia laws have seen the incremental extension of those laws so that people with non terminal illnesses are allowed to die.
Euthanasia is the intentional killing by act or omission of a person whose life is felt to be not worth living. Euthanasia is usually carried out by a doctor administering lethal drugs, for example, by injection. Euthanasia is unnecessary, because alternative treatments exist, dangerous as it puts vulnerable people at risk and wrong as it is contrary to all historical codes of ethics.
Requests for euthanasia are extremely rare when patients’ needs are properly met. A change in the law would place the lives of a much larger number of vulnerable people in danger. That pressure, whether real of imagined, would be felt by sick, disabled and elderly people to request an early death.
In 1994 a House of Lords’ select committee reported on euthanasia and unanimously recommended no change to the law. Lord Walton, the chairman and neurologist described his concerns of the legislation,”We concluded that it was virtually impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law in the United Kingdom could 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.” People who are dying often feel a burden on relatives, carers and a society full of resources.
Any law allowing Physician assisted suicide would threaten the trust necessary for the doctor-patient relationship to function, place pressure on patients to request and early death, and introduce a slippery slope to voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Such legislation could undermine the development of palliative care services and lead to patients being incited to request suicide for economic reasons by family, carers or society at large. Legalising euthanasia would split the medical profession.
The progression from voluntary to non-voluntary or involuntary euthanasia is well documented in the Netherlands. The Remmelink report analysed all 129,000 deaths in the Netherlands in 1990. 3% were by euthanasia. Of that 3%, 1 in 3, or 1% of all deaths in 1990, were euthanasia ‘without explicit request.’ Dutch doctors in 1990 killed 1,000 patients without their request. In 2005, doctors instituted the Groningen protocol enabling the killing of severely disabled children. Doctors could become the most dangerous people in the state.
A House of Lords select committee said that a Netherlands type law would lead to 13,000 new deaths per annum in Britain, whereas an Oregon-type law would lead to 650 deaths per annum. Well over 90% of the members of the Association of Palliative Medicine are strongly opposed to euthanasia. Traditionally the Royal Colleges have been opposed to a change in the law.
A change in the law would put many vulnerable people – the elderly, sick, depressed or disabled under pressure to end their lives for fear of being a burden on others. Continual requests for assisted suicide or euthanasia are extremely rare when people’s physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs are being properly met: the focus should be on better care. The existing law is clear and right in acting as an effective deterrent to exploitation and abuse while at the same time giving discretion to both prosecutors and judges to combine justice and mercy in hard cases.