Monday, 8 June 2015

We need a rational debate on assisted dying

The immediate negative response of those opposed to any form of assisted dying to the reintroduction of Lord (Charles) Falconer’s bill typifies the polarised and emotive nature of the debate thus far. 
Following the very full media coverage of the death of Jeffrey Spector, who went to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life, Lord Falconer announced he would be reintroducing his bill, seeking to provide assistance for terminally ill patients, who have formed an intention to end their life, subject to the approval of two doctors and a high court judge.
The response from Baroness (Sheila) Hollis and opponents of any form of euthanasia was to cry foul, claiming the bill would be a starting point from which the criteria for termination would be expanded.
One of the problems with the debate over assisted dying at the moment is that it seems to be being guided by one sensational media story after another. Emotions run high while cold hard logic runs a long way behind.
My own position on assisted dying has changed over recent years. I witnessed my mother go through years of physical suffering, declaring almost every day she wished she was dead. I remember regularly arguing that there were people worse off than her. My Mum’s mind was excellent right up to the end, when it came, a couple of years ago. However, since her death I have had time to reflect.
Mum underwent a steady physical deterioration over a number of years. She did not have a terminal condition but had had enough. She’d lost most of her sight, hearing and movement.
I learned to be a little more understanding of those suffering, looking down the barrel of things simply getting worse until that final moment of death comes. It’s not a great quality of life.
My experience has made me believe that the type of proposals being made by Lord Falconer’s bill at least deserve a proper debate in the public square. The assisted dying terrain is dominated by potential pitfalls: there is the slippery slope argument, that once assisted dying is conceded the conditionality will be loosened. Doctors will object. Many rightly claim they came into medicine to save, not take, lives.
Then there is the economic argument, that once assisted dying is on the statute book, pressure on NHS resources and staff will contribute to making euthanasia the default position for the sick and dying. What of the elderly person alone in the hospital bed, without family or friends to fight their corner? Or the elderly person in the hospital bed surrounded by greedy relatives who want to get their hands on his or her wealth?
These are all valid concerns: what is clear is that the present situation serves no one very well. What is needed is for some rationality to be brought to the assisted dying debate. Perhaps a Royal Commission or similar body to take evidence over a set period of time, then come up with suggestions as to how things can move forward. It seems like we are creeping toward legalising assisted dying but not in a rational way. There should be change - but it has to be undertaken after a logical look at the facts and implications. Then maybe the situation can change for the benefit of all.

* Published 5/6/2015 on

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