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LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A bishop in the UK is warning an attempt to legalize assisted dying working its way through the House of Lords sends the message “that some lives are no longer worth fighting for.”
Baroness Molly Meacher’s private member’s Assisted Dying Bill is set to get its second reading – where it will be debated in the House of Lords – in the autumn.
The proposed legislation would allow terminally ill patients in their last six months of life to commit medically assisted suicide with the permission of two doctors and a judge.
Bishop Patrick McKinney of Nottingham said it is “one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.”
“What this means in practice is that seriously ill people, across England and Wales, can be supplied with lethal drugs by NHS healthcare professionals, with the deliberate intention of helping the patient to end their life. Enthusiasts for a change in the law like to euphemistically label this controversial proposal as ‘assisted dying’, when in fact what they are demanding is assisted suicide for seriously unwell, vulnerable people,” the bishop said in a video statement.
“We have just lived through a global pandemic where we have all played our part, and many have made huge sacrifices, to protect the most clinically vulnerable members of our society from a potentially deadly virus. This response has clearly affirmed that, as a civilized society, we naturally value the life of each individual, regardless of their age or medical profile,” he said.
A similar bill to allow assisted suicide was defeated by the House of Commons in 2015 by a vote of 330 votes to 118. However, Meacher says her proposal would “enable terminally ill, mentally competent people whose suffering is beyond the reach of palliative care to die well and on their own terms.”
Pro-life activists disagree.
McKinney said the current law “sends a clear message: We do not involve ourselves in bringing about the death of another person, no matter how ill or depressed they might feel.”
“Introducing a system which would license assisted suicide for the terminally ill would send the message – however unintentionally – that some lives are no longer worth fighting for,” he said.
He said not allowing euthanasia or assisted suicide is “the surest way to protect those who are nearing the end of their lives from abuse, coercion or, indeed, internal pressure to choose assisted death out of fear of burdening their loved ones.”
He added that under our current law and practices in England and Wales, doctors have a duty of care to do everything in their power to make death a peaceful and dignified experience.
“To offer patients in despair a lethal prescription instead, would represent a disturbing shift in our culture of care,” the bishop added.
Moreover, McKinney said would be “naïve” to believe that once assisted suicide is made legal, it would simply be limited to those who are already dying.
“If the purpose of assisted dying is to alleviate suffering, then why should it be limited to the terminally ill with only six months to live? Campaigners will inevitably argue that it should also be allowed for those who have years of suffering ahead of them, due to chronic illness or disability. Canada’s experience is just one example of how quickly an assisted dying law, with supposed safeguards, can expand far beyond those who are terminally ill,” he said.
Earlier this year, Canadian law changed to allow disabled people who are not terminally ill to seek medically assisted dying; in 2023, it will be offered solely on the grounds of mental illness.
A recent YouGov poll of the members of the House of Commons – which wields the deciding power on legislation in the UK – found only 35 percent supported allowing medically assisted suicide or euthanasia.
Catherine Robinson of Right to Life UK said the poll was “wonderful to see” in light of the upcoming debate on Meacher’s bill in the House of Lords.
“The overwhelming majority of doctors who work in end-of-life care … continue to oppose assisted suicide. They know from experience that what vulnerable people need at the end of their lives is love and support, not offers to assist their death,” she said.
“We also have increasing evidence that people’s wishes to die are transient,” Robinson added, citing The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing which surveyed 8,174 people over the age of 50 and found that 3.5 percent expressed a wish to die at the first stage of the study. However, 72 percent of these participants no longer reported a wish to die when reassessed two years later.
“We should seek to care for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, rather than state-sanction their deaths,” she said.
“It is no coincidence that many prominent people with disabilities, plenty of disability rights groups, and many respected healthcare professionals continue to rally against introducing assisted suicide, for it strikes against the very heart of the dignity and care we ought to afford to each human being.”
Not Dead Yet UK, a disability organization opposed to assisted suicide, said the Meacher bill’s use of the term “assisted dying” is a euphemism, since the legislation “would give doctors legal powers to help patients kill themselves, to commit suicide.”
The organization said the bill’s proposed safeguards “will work well enough for us to feel confident that a change to the law will ensure disabled people are protected.”
“This includes protection from coercion, from feeling a burden, from limited resources or from professionals subjectively deciding our lives are not worth living,” they said in a statement.
“We need help to live, not help to die. The law should remain as it is and protect the majority, rather than the few who might benefit from this bill.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome