Seriously ill patients often seek guidance and not only treatment from their doctors, she said, and are “susceptible to subtle messaging.”
“A doctor who agrees to a request for lethal drugs risks sending the message, however unintended, that in his or her opinion suicide is the patient’s best course of action,” she wrote.
She said that society rightly treats people who attempt suicide with “compassion” while being clear that “suicide is not something to be encouraged or assisted.”
“Yet how can we maintain that, while saying that some groups (for now, the terminally ill) should have their suicide assisted? Are the lives of those who are dying less deserving of efforts to improve their quality, even if prognosis is short?”
For her part, Baroness Meacher sought to make the case for legalizing assisted suicide.
“At present dying people can starve themselves to death or they can reject further treatment, or end their own lives in other ways. We need a better alternative for dying people,” she said.
Meacher cited problems some people face at the end of life, such as a case of someone in extreme pain who might be allergic to opioid drugs or other painkillers. She cited people with motor neuron disease, saying they “may not suffer pain but steadily and irrevocably lose the ability to move and who ultimately cannot eat, drink, speak or breathe unaided.”
“For many people this strikes at the core of who they are as a person,” she said. Contending that everyone has an idea of what they would find unbearable at the end of life, she said “we can decide for ourselves: is this level of suffering bearable for me?”
The legalization proposal contains some restrictions. Two doctors must certify that a patient is terminally ill and has no more than six months to live. The doctors must certify the patient has the mental capacity to choose to die, without influence from others. The proposed law requires close relatives of patients to be interviewed, and intends that a High Court judge will oversee the process.
An all-party Parliamentary Group called Living and Dying Well is among the organizations opposed to assisted suicide. The group has published a booklet, “Truths and Half Truths about Assisted Dying,” critical of claims of assisted suicide advocates like Dignity in Dying.
Baroness Finlay questioned claims that there will be “strict safeguards” to proposals for assisted suicide. If the “safeguards” follow previous proposals, she said, “they will be vague stipulations about what ought to happen in a perfect world – that someone seeking ‘assisted dying’ should have, for example, a “settled wish to die” and should be free from pressure.”
(Story continues below)
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“But what would be the minimum steps to ensure that these and other conditions were properly met? If we go by previous bills, none,” she said.
Baroness Finlay said that under the proposed bill, doctors would be required to make the “life-or-death” decisions.
While doctors can diagnose terminal illness and offer an opinion on the patient’s prognosis, she wondered, “can, or should, overburdened doctors to be required to judge whether there is something in the patient’s life that might be influencing a request – like feelings of being a burden, or subtle pressure being exerted by others?”
“No, they can’t assess it reliably,” she concluded.
She said assisted suicide or “assisted dying” is “not part of clinical care.” The questions are beyond the medical field, in areas where doctors can’t make “knowledge-based judgments.”
“Most doctors who are caring for dying patients don’t want such powers,” she said. “Therefore the minority of doctors outside this field, willing to assess requests for lethal drugs and engage in the practice, would be unlikely to have any in-depth knowledge of the people they were assessing or what is going on around the patient.”