Lives Worth Living
Rob Marris MP's 'Assisted Dying Bill' which would have put elderly, disabled and vulnerable people at risk, was resoundingly defeated by 330 votes to 118 on Friday 11th September.
SPUC sent a special mailing to our 20,000 most active members, as well as various other mailings to key groups. As a result of our mailings, electronic alerts and website campaigning, approximately 27,500 briefings on the Bill were ordered and hundreds of supporters informed us about the voting intentions of hundreds of MPs. Readers of SPUC's Pro-Life Times, which has a circulation of 110,000, also opposed the Bill.
Many supporters will have received similar messages about contacting their MP from a number of groups. MPs were getting the same message from a variety of constituents: vote against the bill. Faith leaders spoke out against the bill (in particular Catholic leaders from both Britain and Northern Ireland) and events such as vigils to encourage prayer for protection against the bill were organised in some places.
Read on for more background to the euthanasia debate:
Under the 1961 Suicide Act, committing suicide ceased to be a crime in the UK, but assisting or encouraging a person to commit suicide is a serious offence.
By forbidding assistance in suicide, the law protects the right to life. Society expresses solidarity with people who may feel suicidal affirming that their lives are valued.
The 1961 Act did not create a 'right' to commit suicide, and there is no right to die in any of the major human rights documents, such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or the 1966 International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. These and many other such internationally agreed documents recognise and protect the right to life, but give no status to any so-called right to die.
Suicide is a tragedy
Very few people commit suicide, and most instances are tragic cases of mental disturbance or emotional trauma. In recent years, "right to die" campaigners have exploited the media to use the suicides of a small number of disabled people as an argument that the law should recognise a right to die by suicide and euthanasia.
The official Suicide Prevention Strategies in each of the UK countries also testify to society's concern for those who are suicidal. But proponents of euthanasia are seeking to use assisted suicide as a route to legalise the killing of sick people and people with disabilities. Efforts have been made to introduce a law that permits doctors to authorise and provide assisted suicide. This is modelled on the way the Abortion Act enlists doctors to both authorise and perform abortions.
Another approach to introducing euthanasia is the attempt to extend abortion to include the killing of the disabled after birth as debated extensively in a recent edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics (May 2013).
We must protect the vulnerable
These are serious attacks on the fundamental right to live, especially the right of people with disabilities or chronic or terminal illness.
There is no law in the UK defining a crime of "euthanasia", but euthanasia amounts to murder or manslaughter, depending on the circumstances in which the victim dies.
Euthanasia, sometimes called “mercy killing”, might mean different things to different people.
What euthanasia is
The word euthanasia is derived from two Greek words which mean “a good death”: eu, well, and thanatos, death. In the current debate, euthanasia means the intentional bringing about of the death of a person, by a direct act or by neglect of reasonable care, out of a motive of compassion. It is different from other forms of homicide because it is motivated by compassion.
The term is usually used in a medical context, referring to the killing of patients by doctors, often but not always by lethal injection.
Euthanasia is intentional killing. It can be done by a direct act, such as a lethal injection or a deliberately lethal dosage of drugs; this is known as active euthanasia. It can also be done by the denial of reasonable care’, including the basic needs of food and water. This is known as euthanasia by omission or neglect, where the patient dies of starvation or dehydration, or by being denied something else which should reasonably be provided to them.
What euthanasia isn’t
Patients have a right to refuse treatment, not only if the patient feels it will not be of benefit, but also if the treatment has “unduly burdensome consequences for the patient” – for example if the treatment is physically or spiritually taxing, or prevents one from achieving certain important goals. A common example of this is cases where a cancer patient refuses chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy can potentially prolong the life of the patient, but it can also have extremely unpleasant side effects. If the patient dies, the doctor cannot be accused of killing them by not treating with chemotherapy – it is the cancer that has caused their death. Similarly if a terminally ill and competent patient contracts pneumonia, that person has the right to refuse antibiotic treatment.
Much public support for euthanasia is based on a fear of being forced to remain on a life-support machine, and many people believe that euthanasia is about “switching off machines”. But a life-support machine is an artificial mechanism. If turned off and the patient dies, it is the underlying disease that causes their death. A competent patient who expresses a wish to reject all medical treatment, from antibiotics to blood transfusions to life-support machines, has a legal right to do so. This has been clearly accepted as morally and legally permissible, and the issue is not controversial.
Different categories/types of euthanasia
Debates about euthanasia often involve the use of emotionally-charged terms such as mercy killing, death with dignity, deliverance and so on. It is important to understand the meanings of euthanasia and the various types of euthanasia that people may refer to. But in all types of euthanasia, intentional killing is involved.
The different categories or types of euthanasia are: Voluntary euthanasia, non-voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia.
Voluntary euthanasia refers to euthanasia in cases where the patient has expressed a wish to be killed. Many euthanasia advocates prefer to use this term because they believe that voluntary euthanasia can be kept separate from other acts of euthanasia – for example involuntary or non-voluntary euthanasia.
This refers to killing a patient, supposedly in that person’s own interests, but where the person is either not in a position to have, or not in a position to express, any view on the matter. This might happen to people who the doctors or relatives think may have “lives worse than death”.
Examples of this might be babies born with terrible abnormalities, or adults who are senile, blind and deaf, or totally paralysed.
Involuntary euthanasia is a concept that is particularly disturbing to most people. It refers to euthanasia in cases when the patient either did not request death at all, when he or she was in a position to make such a request, or when the patient had specifically rejected euthanasia.
This means the killing of a person, supposedly in that person’s own interests, in disregard of that person’s own view. Or that person might be killed without taking the trouble to find out their view. The important factor is that the person has the capacity to express wishes, but those wishes are overridden.
Assisted suicide refers to the provision of a causative agent (usually a medication, but perhaps for example a carbon monoxide tank or plastic bag) to a patient, with the intention that the patient will use the agent to commit suicide. Physician-assisted suicide specifically refers to cases where a doctor provides the means for the patient to kill themselves, usually medication.
All types of euthanasia are intrinsically unethical: i.e. always and everywhere wrong, in and of themselves.
Euthanasia violates the right to life. Everyone has the right to life, and this right is to be protected by law. The right to life is inviolable – it cannot be taken from a person –and inalienable – a person cannot give it away.
Euthanasia rejects the basis of just laws – that everyone is equal. The so-called right to die will become a duty to die. Euthanasia undermines the role of doctors and the practice of medicine.