This week the House of Lords will debate Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying Bill. Lord Joffe proposes a bill that would "enable a competent adult who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his/her own considered and persistent request". BBCi reports churchleaders speaking out against the Bill today and the Mail on Sunday carries an article (not currently available online) from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
Dr Williams believes that the ADB - motivated, in part, by the pressures discussed in this blog's previous post - will fundamentally altar the law's relationship with the citizen. Up until now, Dr Williams notes, the law "has always been what guarantees the security and lives of citizens, irrespective of quality of life or life expectancy." If the ADB were to become law, the Archbishop warns, and it becomes lawful for a doctor or other private citizen to bring about the death of another private citizen, "we are in uncharted waters".
Dr Williams asks some penetrating questions of those who would support the legalisation of 'assisted dying' and they are listed below. The summary words in red are my own.
- The end of the 'do no harm' principle: "If we say that people have a right to die in some circumstances, does this create a duty on the part of doctors and nurses to bring about death?"
- Conscientious objections: "What are the safeguards for the right of medical professionals to refuse [to end a patient's life] on conscientious grounds?"
- Patient-doctor trust: "What will be the effect of legislation be on trust in the medical profession?"
- A right-to-die becomes a duty-to-die: "Will there be a suspicion or fear that pressure will be brought to bear on those in terminal or extreme conditions to ask for 'assisted dying'?"
- Resource constraints lead to euthanasia : "Will individuals or their families - not to mention doctors and nurses - be able to cope with the feeling of unspoken pressure to save scarce resources?" The Archbishop of Canterbury notes that elderly people are already moving away from Holland and Switzerland (where voluntary euthanasia is legal) because of fears of what might happen to them when they need medical care.
- Legal euthanasia reduces the incentive to invest in pain control and other medical research: "Can we be sure that high-quality research will continue into ageing, dementia and pain control, when there is a swifter and less costly option available in the form of 'assisted dying?'" and similarly, "Will this legislation undermine investment in palliative provision?"
Dr Williams does not believe that life should be prolonged inhumanely. He accepts that doctors often give pain-killing drugs in the knowledge that such treatments will hasten death.
A "moral watershed" will be crossed, however, if the medical profession is granted legal permission to "initiate a process where the primary and explicit purpose is to end life."