LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland’s bishops say proposed “Dying with Dignity” legislation would “not only encourage the acceptance of assisted suicide but significantly weaken the protections against the non-consensual killing of particularly vulnerable classes of persons.”
The Republic of Ireland is considering the legislation, and the Irish parliament’s Committee on Justice is seeking submissions about the proposal.
In their submission, the bishops noted the bill is described as an act “to make provision for assistance in achieving a dignified and peaceful end of life to qualifying persons and related matters.”
“Human dignity refers to individual worth and is inherent in every human person by virtue of his or her human nature. It is not something given or conferred by any institution, law, process, or standard of physical or mental well-being. Yet the Bill presupposes that human dignity can be lost and that a person can die ‘without’ dignity,” the bishops write.
“For many, though by no means all people, the end of life is marked by a period of declining capacity, sometimes directly related to sickness or disease and sometimes due simply to the frailty of old age,” the submission continues.
“In addition to the associated physical manifestations, this end stage of human life can give rise to a variety of emotions in the person who is dying: Sadness, anxiety, depression, resignation, peace. Just as some people drift through life while others engage fully with it, so it is with the end of life,” it adds.
Gino Kenny, an Irish legislator belonging to the left-wing Solidarity–People Before Profit party, introduced the proposal last year as a Private Member’s Bill in the Dáil, the lower house of Ireland’s legislature.
Although Kenny’s party has only 5 members in the Dáil, other parties have indicated they could support the proposed law, including Sinn Fein, Labour, and the Green Party.
Critics of the bill note that it defines a “terminal illness” as one where “the person is likely to die as a result of that illness or complications relating thereto,” and does not set a time limit for “expected death” – usually 6 months in other countries – before physician-assisted suicide could be requested.
In addition, the bill would require any doctor not willing to assist with a suicide to refer the patient to another doctor. This is especially worrying for the hospice movement, which cares for dying patients near the end of their lives and is philosophically opposed to euthanasia.
Other objections to the proposed legislation include the short 14-day waiting period between a request for lethal medication and its delivery, the lack of a requirement for a second opinion, and the lack of safeguards to protect vulnerable patients.
A similar Private Member’s Bill was submitted to the Dáil in 2015, but failed to pass into law.
The bishops say advocates of the law are undermining the good achieved by palliative care, which “by upholding absolute respect for human life and, at the same time, acknowledging human mortality, offers terminally ill people the best possibility of achieving a dignified and peaceful end of life.”
“It does this by being sensitively truthful, by providing for the relief of physical and emotional pain and by ensuring that people have the opportunity to express fears and hopes and unresolved concerns and to be listened to, in a context where the focus is on care rather than on therapy or the artificial prolongation of life,” the Church leaders argue.
The bishops say the proposed legislation fails to require caregivers to provide adequate palliative care for the terminally ill person, meaning someone might decide to end his or her own life without ever having experienced what palliative care can do to ease suffering “and, thus, making this decision without being fully aware of the other options available to them.”
The submission admits that it’s “totally in keeping with the dignity of the person” that a dying person should wish to exercise his or her freedom by participating actively in decision-making about medical treatment or care which is proposed.
“This includes expressing certain preferences about how he or she might be cared for or treated at some future time, when he or she might not be competent to make a decision. The law already provides for people to refuse treatment which would be regarded as futile and/or unduly burdensome. The law already provides for advance care decisions and for assisted decision-making,” the bishops note.
However, the prelates argue that the bill fails to recognize the reality that many patients who request assisted suicide are depressed.
“Depression, anxiety, and ambivalence about dying characterize both medical patients who attempt suicide and those who request assisted suicide. When the physical and psychological sources of the desperation that underlies requests for assisted suicide are addressed, the desire for death diminishes and patients are usually grateful for the time remaining to them. Improved psychiatric and medical care for those who are terminally ill offer significant possibilities for suicide prevention,” the submission reads.
In addition, the bishops argue that legalized assisted suicide would place the terminally ill, the disabled, and other vulnerable patients under emotional and social pressure to end their own lives in order to spare others the burden of caring for them.
“What begins as an abstract option becomes a specific societal ‘duty’ for many—a social pressure that no law, no matter how well intentioned, can regulate out of existence. In this way medically endorsed assisted suicide will stigmatize certain classes of vulnerable person. Medical endorsement of assisted suicide would also clash with wider societal efforts to address the scourge of suicide as something tragic, regrettable, and worthy of our efforts to fight against,” the bishops explain.
Once one of the most Catholic nations in Europe, revelations about clerical sexual abuse has left public confidence in the Church at its lowest level in the history of Ireland.
Not only has Mass attendance dropped significantly over the past quarter century, the Irish people have increasingly rejected laws seen as rooted in Catholic teaching.
In 2015, the country held a referendum on same-sex marriage in which 62 percent of the voters backed changing the constitution to allow the practice. An even larger number – over 66 percent – voted to change the constitution to allow legal abortion in 2018.
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