Catholic Church intensifies campaign against assisted dying
Leaflets are being sent out to Catholic parishes across England and Wales explaining why the Church cannot support assisted dying.
Sense and Nonsense on 'Assisted Dying' takes the form of a Q&A explaining the reasoning behind their opposition and comes before the second reading of Lord Falconer's assisted dying bill in the House of Lords in the spring.
The pamphlet offers answers to common questions around assisted dying, such as: "Shouldn't everyone have the right to decide when and how they die?", "Why should dying people be forced to stay alive and suffer?" and "If I can end my life by refusing treatment, why can't I have medical help to end it?"
In response to whether people have a "right to decide when and how they die", the pamphlet points to the difference between a supposed right and the reality of putting that into practice.
"There are real concerns that there is scope for such a law to be abused," the Church leadership explains.
"Some terminally ill people might feel under pressure to end their lives, either from others or from feeling that they should remove a care or financial burden from their families.
"Others might wish to do so as a result of depression, a common feature of terminal illness."
The Catholic Church is concerned that in practice, a change to current law could mean that a right to die becomes a "duty to die".
This debate has been going on for some time in relation to the Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP), which was subject to public and government scrutiny.
The idea behind the LCP was that after a multidisciplinary medical review, doctors could decide if certain non-essential treatments should be withdrawn from patients in cases where all medical options to extend their life had been exhausted. On occasion, this would mean withdrawing food and water.
However, it was found that the system was open to abuse and decisions to remove care were often made by non-doctors, and in almost half of cases neither the patient nor their families were informed that they had been placed on the LCP.
As a result of these, and other failings, it was announced in July last year that the LCP would be phased out.
The abuses and failure to regulate the LCP properly have caused some to object to any moves towards assisted dying on the grounds that, if it were to be legalised, similar failings would have much more serious consequences.
Addressing the question of suffering, the pamphlet highlights a study from the Economist Intelligence Unit from July 2010 which shows that Britain has the best end of life care in the world.
"British doctors tend to be honest about prognoses. The mortally ill get plentiful pain killers. A well-established hospice movement cares for people near death, although only 4% of deaths occur in them," the unit said.
The Catholic Church said in the pamphlet that what is needed is to "ensure that everyone has access to the best palliative care available".
"In contrast, assisted suicide is a counsel of despair," it says.
The pamphlet also explains the distinction between death via refusal of treatment, which is legal, and death as a result of assisted suicide which is not.
"Patients who refuse treatment, rarely do so in order to end their lives," it explains.
"They do it because they are finding the treatment burdensome and they want to let nature take its course.
"There's a world of difference, in medical ethics and in law, between accepting that death can't be prevented and seeking assistance to end your own life."
Dignity in Dying, which supports assisted dying, has criticised the pamphlet. Speaking to Christian Today, a spokesperson for the organisation claimed that the Q&A "does not engage with the evidence" on assisted dying.
"Curiously for a document that is trying to provide clarity on assisted dying, does not mention the US State of Oregon once – the place that currently has existing legislation on this issue," the spokesperson said.
"In Oregon an assisted dying law for terminally ill people has been working safely for over fifteen years.
"There has not been any extension in its legislation and the number of assisted deaths has never risen above 0.25% of all deaths per year. Every single patient who has had an assisted death in Oregon has been mentally competent and terminally ill."
This differs somewhat from the experience of Belgium, however, where the legalisation of euthanasia saw a rise from fewer than 300 cases in 2003 to over 1,300 in 2012. This month, the country's Parliament voted to legalise euthanasia for children.
A number of recent cases in the country have led to questions being raised about the effectiveness of the safeguards that are supposed to be in place.
Despite not having a terminal illness, Marc and Eddy Verbessem, twins with a genetic condition that caused deafness, were killed by legal euthanasia in January 2013 when they learned they would also go blind and feared losing their independence.
Last year also saw the death of Nathan Verhelst, a female-to-male transsexual who had sought a sex change because of abusive parents who rejected him because he was born a girl. He was granted euthanasia despite not having a terminal illness because his sex change operations had left him with "unbearable psychological suffering".
In April 2012, Godelieva De Troyer was granted euthanasia because she was suffering depression. In emails sent to her son, the 64-year-old revealed an expectation that they would not give it to her.
Speaking to the BBC, her son Tom Mortimer expressed outrage and claimed that his mother did not have a "right to die".
"From my perspective this is not a law for patients, it's a law for doctors so they won't be prosecuted," Mortier said. "Performing euthanasia is unethical. It's killing your patients, and now they're promoting it as the ultimate form of love. What have we become here in Belgium? I don't understand it."
Dignity in Dying's chief executive Sarah Wootton pointed out that according to a 2013 YouGov poll, the majority of Catholics disagreed with the Church's stance on assisted dying.
The Catholic Church acknowledges that the numbers of Britons travelling abroad for assisted suicide is very small, but says that does not mean it should be legalised.
"We make our own laws, and the legal protection of the weak and vulnerable is a fundamental duty of the state and of society," it states.