Legal assisted suicide bill would mean killing, not caring, UK bishop warns

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury/ CNA

A true culture of caring protects the sick, the vulnerable, and the elderly, said one English Catholic bishop in response to a proposal to legalize assisted suicide in the United Kingdom.

“The culture built on the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has protected the most vulnerable, led to the development of the finest end of life care and never required of our medical and nursing professions that they assist in the suicide or the killing of their patients,” Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said on May 24. The bishop addressed a recent proposal in the UK House of Lords to legalize assisted suicide, called “aid in dying” by its proponents.

“I urge all those who value the sanctity of human life and desire the best care and support for the sick and the dying, to oppose this latest proposal to cross the line from caring towards killing,” Bishop Davies said.

“If Parliament were ever persuaded to legalize assisted suicide, we should be in no doubt as to the moral line that would be crossed,” he added. “A line that has never been legally crossed in our care of the sick and elderly since the foundation of our society.”

Baroness Meacher, an independent member of the House of Lords and chair of the assisted suicide advocacy group Dignity in Dying, has proposed a private member’s bill to legalize assisted suicide. Those who are terminally ill and who have been given no more than six months to live would be able to seek assisted suicide.

Bishop Davies contrasted the way the proposed bill treats the vulnerable with the efforts to protect the elderly and the ill from the coronavirus epidemic.

“The bill comes at the end of a public health crisis where all our efforts have been directed towards safeguarding the vulnerable,” the Catholic bishop said. “During this past year we have been reminded how the true measure of a society is seen in how we safeguard and care for the sick, the aged and those nearing the end of their lives.”

“To remove legal protections in legislating for assisted suicide, will take away a shield from some of the most vulnerable members of society,” he added.

Bishop Davies noted that Baroness Meacher’s organization Dignity in Dying has been involved in euthanasia advocacy for decades under a previous name.

“The language employed in seeking this seismic change in the law is one of compassion, knowing that no one is opposed to the relief of human suffering,” he said. “However, the fact this legislation is being proposed in Parliament by the chair of what was the Voluntary Euthanasia Society should leave us in no doubt as to the goal. This society has failed in its aims since the 1930s and under the guise of promoting ‘dignity in dying’ we should not allow its campaign to progress by means of assisted suicide towards the medical killing of the sick and the aged.”

He noted that the bill is being proposed only six years after a similar proposal was “overwhelmingly rejected” by Parliament.

In 2015 the U.K. Parliament rejected a bill that would have legalized assisted suicide for patients with a terminal diagnosis, by a vote of 330 to 118. Parliament has consistently rejected efforts to change the law.

Baroness Meacher, for her part, recently sought to make the case for legalizing assisted suicide.

“Fundamental to this debate is the concept of personal choice and autonomy,” she said in her own May 20 essay for The House. She contended that pro-assisted suicide opinion has increased since Parliament last considered a legalization move.

“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.

She cited problems some people face at the end of life, like cases 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?”

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The legalization proposal has some restrictions. Two doctors must certify that a patient is terminally ill and has no more than six months to live. They must certify the patient has the mental capacity to choose assisted suicide, without influence from others. The proposed law also requires close relatives of patients requesting assisted suicide to be interviewed, and intends that a High Court judge will oversee the process.

Meacher’s bill will have its first reading on May 26. It is not clear if the latest proposal will reach the House of Commons.

An all-party Parliamentary Group called Living and Dying Well is among the organizations opposed to assisted suicide. It has published a booklet, “Truths and Half Truths about Assisted Dying,” critical of claims by assisted suicide advocates like Dignity in Dying.

Among the critics of assisted suicide is Baroness Finlay of Landaff, a Welsh doctor who is a professor of palliative care and an independent crossbench member of the House of Lords.

Writing in a May 20 essay for The House magazine, 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?” she asked.

Seriously ill patients often seek guidance from their doctors, not only treatment, and are “susceptible to subtle messaging,” according to Finlay. “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.”

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Assisted suicide is illegal in the U.K., and doctors who assist a suicide can be jailed up to 14 years under the Suicide Act of 1961.