There is nothing surer than each of us having to face our own death and the deaths of family and friends. Around half a million people die each year in the UK. By definition, this makes care of the dying an important topic.
The UK is recognised as a leader in the provision of palliative care but, with an increasing elderly population, the need to ensure sufficient resources to provide care and dignity to the ill, elderly and dying is essential. There has been much comment in the media recently about the dignity of the ill and elderly in hospitals and care homes. A poor caring environment puts pressure on those most vulnerable and those that care for them. We need to support the most vulnerable at every stage of life through policy and in practice.
We are currently seeing a great deal of pressure applied by those wanting to change the law on assisted suicide with increasing discussion about whether care of the dying should include the option for a person to choose to end their own life with medical assistance, so-called physician-assisted suicide (PAS).
So far this year we have witnessed the publication of the Falconer Commission promoting assisting suicide, three debates in Parliament in which parliamentarians have spoken out in favour of changing the law, the announcement that a new Bill is to be published in the Scottish Parliament legalising assisted suicide and a number of high profile court cases which are being used by those promoting a change in the law to try and change public opinion.
This has been accompanied by some extraordinarily biased media reporting, such as the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme featuring Tony Nicklinson, a man with ‘Locked-in’ Syndrome who is challenging the law on murder by seeking permission for a doctor to be allowed to end his life.
The prospect of facing pain and suffering is an understandable concern, but CARE believes that improved care is the right response and that the law should not be changed. This is for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the state would be condoning the deliberate ending of human life. The Suicide Act 1961 makes it an offence in England and Wales to assist someone if they commit suicide. If the law were changed to allow doctors to assist some people (but not all) to take lethal medication, there would be a two-tier system in England and Wales on who could die with ‘assistance’ and who could not.
Secondly, there would be a significant change in the role of a doctor from ‘doing no harm’ to a patient to helping them end their life. In the US state of Oregon, where you can choose to end your life if you are terminally ill and it has been estimated that you have only six months to live, physician-assisted suicide has become an accepted option for doctors to suggest to terminally patients. One patient even reported being refused chemotherapy but offered assisted suicide because the latter was covered under her insurance plan.
Thirdly, there may be a long-term impact on the elderly and disabled with a choice to die becoming a duty to die. If the law changed so that there was a legal way in which your life could be ended, those who currently feel they may be a burden to family and friends might feel increasingly pressured to seek medical help to do so. There is major concern about whether the law would later be changed so eligibility would be extended beyond patients with terminal illnesses.
As Christians we believe that as human beings we are made in God’s image and that our lives are very precious. Whilst there are biblical imperatives to care for the vulnerable there are no such imperatives to play God and end human life even for reasons of compassion. The famous example of assisted suicide in scripture – that of King Saul – sets before us the sternest of warnings despite the fact that he was dying and in great pain.
How we care for the vulnerable is a measure of society as a whole. We ask you to demonstrate your support for the vulnerable by showing MPs that you believe we need to promote better palliative care and retain our existing laws against assisted suicide and euthanasia by joining us at a Parliamentary Rally in Westminster on 3 July.
Click here for more details: www.care.org.uk/rally