Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy, and is an Isle of Wight Councillor and a Papal Knight.
George Carey’s recent indication that he supports Lord Falconer’s attempts to legalise euthanasia through his Assisted Dying Bill is as surprising as it is embarrassing for the Church of England since it is without any biblical justification. What is worse, it will leave the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s legacy as being one in which he is remembered for putting at risk the most vulnerable in our society for decades and potentially centuries to come.
The Bill, due to be debated this Friday, permits patients in certain defined circumstances to request the assistance of a doctor to end their lives and in so doing appears to limit that entitlement to only a very few hard cases. Or does it?
First, the Bill purports to apply only to someone who is “terminally ill” who is “expected to die within six months”. Yet we can none of us know when we are to die, and even medical practice is constantly surprised by longevity of even very ill patients. Yes, we can reasonably predict if somebody is imminently about to die within the next few days (and hardly, therefore, need to hasten that appointment) but, beyond that, predictions are very difficult indeed.
Let me add that the Bill actually specifies that the means of death may not be provided until 14 days after requested in accordance with the above assessments. As any doctor dealing with the terminally ill will tell you, trying to predict imminence of death two weeks out is a medical impossibility in most cases.
Second, the Bill requires a doctor to state that a condition “cannot be reversed by treatment”. Hmmm. Medical science and innovation frequently amaze us, as does the human body’s ability to deal on occasion with otherwise apparently overwhelming challenges.
Third, the Bill requires that the candidate for suicide should have “made and signed a clear and settled intention to end their own life”. The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team spoke last year to 368 potential “jumpers” many of whom may have been clear in advance that they were to take their own lives, but who, at the last minute and with nothing but a supportive and sympathetic conversation, changed their minds.
Fourth, the Bill requires that the intention to die has been formed “without coercion or duress”. Again, how is a doctor to know what relatives or beneficiaries may have said? Or, as importantly, what the potential victim may have thought others might think? Is there a vulnerable, ill, elderly person who does not from time to time wonder what burden they are imposing on others, or what costs they are incurring in medical care provision? Is there a reader of this article who has never had a black thought? If so, you are lucky.
It is human nature to wonder about the burdens that we all place from time to time on our loved ones and our community. And if, sadly, there are murders committed every year, as the statistics show there are, by next of kin who hope to inherit, then how many times more likely is it that there will be those who egg on the sick to ask to take their own lives under the shield of legal protection offered by this Bill?
That the Bill ostensibly requires the involvement of two doctors, and their signing of appropriate forms, is just the provision which convinced Parliament to enact David Steel’s “Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill” in 1967, which then changed its own name to the “Abortion Act” – leading to 200,000 abortions every year in the United Kingdom. Yet we now find cases in which the abortion forms are pre-signed by doctors neither of whom may have even examined the patient.
As we move towards this major debate on Lord Falconer’s bill, the focus of the misleadingly entitled “Dignity in Dying” campaign, those who are alarmed about this real and present threat to patient safety, to say nothing of the moral considerations, are derided for pointing out that the right response to those who are in pain, lonely, vulnerable or feeling rejected is not death at the hands of a clinician, but palliative medicine, proper nursing care, and true compassionate support. Dignity in dying should not mean death by lethal injection; but a good death from natural causes in the care of those who treat the dying with love.
The passing of this Bill would pose a real threat in future to those who may have no voice and who may feel they are a burden on their family and society. Is that dignity? No. There is an over-riding public protection case for opposing this Bill, quite aside from the moral case but, sadly, that is not a view that Labour’s Lord Falconer acknowledges. What is even worse, the Minister dealing with this at the Department of Health is Norman Lamb who, although responsible for championing the rights of patients at the end of their life, has chosen to interpret that as a mandate to support this move to facilitate their death.
This is a clear case in which the Government, particularly the Department of Health, must step in to defend patients against this real and present threat to their welfare. It should not be the subject of a free vote in the Lords: it should be a three line whip to protect the vulnerable against those who would snuff them out.
If Freddie Howe, whom I greatly respect, is reading this, I hope he will consider carefully how he wishes to be remembered by posterity before he, as the Health Minister in the Lords, finalises his own speech for the debate on Friday. Is this to be remembered as a Government which joined Lords Carey and Falconer in sacrificing the vulnerable on the altar of the prevailing trend of political liberalism, or as one that took a principled stand in defence of patient protection?