LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A Scottish parliament human rights committee will hear testimony on assisted suicide, which Catholic officials say could be the beginning of a new campaign to legalize the practice in the country.
Assisted suicide and euthanasia are illegal currently in Scotland, as they are in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Over the past decade, Scotland’s parliament has voted down two attempts to legalize assisted suicide by large margins: 85-16 in 2010, and 82-36 in 2015.
However, a January poll conducted by The Times, an English newspaper, found that 74 percent of Scots agreed that they would support changing the law to allow assisted suicide; it was 69 percent in 2014.
A “Cross Party Group” has now been established in the Scottish Parliament to consider end of life choices, including the right to assisted suicide.
Under British law, assisted suicide is the act of deliberately assisting or encouraging another person to kill themselves. Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering.
“Since 2015 there has been a Scottish Parliament election and a number of changes to the membership of the Parliament. We do not yet know if this means more or less support for assisted suicide,” said Anthony Horan, the Director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office in Edinburgh.
His office is asking Catholics and other concerned people to ask their representatives where they stand on the issue, and to highlight to them some of the risks and dangers of assisted suicide.
“Legalizing assisted suicide or euthanasia would mean vulnerable people will be pressured into ending their lives and it would change the nature of medicine,” Horan told Crux.
“And what future for the Hippocratic Oath which calls on medical staff to ‘first do no harm’? Assisted suicide destroys trust between doctors and patients and it makes the vulnerable more vulnerable,” he added. “There is no denying it: With assisted suicide and euthanasia, a judgement is being made about the lack of worth of a human life.”
Horan insisted the proposals must be robustly opposed, but with compassion.
“First and foremost, Catholics should have compassion and sympathy for those who suffer from illness and live in difficult and challenging circumstances. But Catholics should also resist any proposal to introduce assisted suicide,” he said.
Horan noted that assisted suicide and euthanasia should not be confused with discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome. This is both legal under British law and considered ethically acceptable under Catholic moral teaching.
Horan said the key priority should be “to build on the UK’s excellent tradition of palliative care and make life as comfortable as possible for people with a terminal illness.”
“We should promote care rather than killing. Supporters of assisted suicide will claim that autonomy should rule, and people should be able to decide for themselves when to end their own life,” he said.
“But autonomy is not absolute. That is why we have laws to ensure we do not do certain things which threaten the reasonable freedom of others. It is a fallacy to believe that a decision to end one’s life is exclusively ‘individual’: Suicide has a profound impact on others,” said Horan.
Horan also said assisted suicide is a slippery slope, and in jurisdictions where assisted suicide and euthanasia have been introduced, the conditions put on the practice have liberalized over time.
“Euthanasia was introduced in Belgium in 2002. Strict legal conditions were laid down at the time, including that the patient must manifest a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or injury and that the request for euthanasia must be fully voluntary, well thought out and not due to external pressure,” Horan said.
“Sadly, the notion of an ‘incurable disorder’ is not defined and is open to wide interpretation. For example, diabetes, arthritis, emphysema and hepatitis could all be considered to be incurable disorders,” he explained.
“The Belgian Federal Control and Evaluation Commission has also specified that, in elderly people, the cumulative effect of a combination of ailments may cause unbearable suffering and thus justify euthanasia. So, loss of hearing and failing eye sight could be considered as being part of a number of disorders used to justify euthanasia.”
Horan noted when the Belgian euthanasia law was being developed there was much talk of excluding patients with psychiatric disorders, dementia or depression – since the neuropsychiatric condition of these patients would naturally raise concerns about the validity of any request for euthanasia.
“However, between 2004 and 2015 there was a tenfold increase in the number of people being euthanized because of mental suffering,” he said.
“In Belgium, euthanasia was supposed to be exceptional, a last resort applicable only in the most extreme cases. But it is no longer exceptional, and it is no longer only applicable in extreme cases,” Horan told Crux.
“Euthanasia is now available to minors and people with dementia. It has even been suggested that it should be made available for new-born babies with a fatal disease or even in the absence of a request,” he added.
And it is not just Europe: In the United States, assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Montana, Washington, Vermont, Hawaii, California, Colorado, and the District of Columbia.
Horan said the latest figures from Oregon shows that end of life concerns have less to do with pain than with loss of autonomy (91 percent), inability to engage in certain activities (90 percent), and loss of dignity (76 percent). He pointed out inadequate pain control or concerns about it are stated in only 26 percent of cases.
“Society should be doing more to help people overcome these concerns, not encouraging them to end their life,” said Horan.
Horan also said assisted suicide creates a culture where certain lives are deemed more valuable than others.
“The vulnerable become more vulnerable, and this is never more evident than in the intense opposition to assisted suicide by disability groups,” he said.
Bill Scott, of Inclusion Scotland, the national disabled people’s organization, pointed out that the previous bills introduced into the Scottish parliament would have also allowed assisted suicide for disabled people with non-terminal conditions and those living in pain.
“I would much rather this parliament talk about how we uphold the right to life,” he said, according to The Scotsman.
Last month, the legislature of Guernsey – one of the Channel Islands located off the coast of Normandy which is a Crown dependency – rejected a proposal to legalize assisted suicide on the island.