Assisted dying: call for a reasoned debate

Legislators must continue to protect the vulnerable and should not confuse assisted dying with assisted killing, according to a Jesuit chaplain at a hospice for the terminally ill. 

This Friday (18 July 2014), Lord Falconer’s ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill will receive its second reading in the House of Lords. Fr Gerry Gallen SJ calls us to pray for those debating the Bill, just as we pray for the sick and the dying and those who care for them. He has worked as a full time Chaplain in a leading hospice in London for the past 14 months and he says he has never witnessed such care and compassion as that shown by the staff to the patients and their loved ones: “Whilst not denying there are cases where pain management is extremely difficult – such as the balance of maintaining cognitive functioning whilst suppressing pain – I have not encountered a patient yet who did not appreciate the care and support they were receiving.”  

Fr Gallen says that there is a great deal of excellent practice in assisted dying, which goes unnoticed by those not directly benefitting from it. “The language we use is important: what is being proposed by this Bill is not assisted dying but is clearly assisted killing and that is a very serious and significant difference,” he argues. “”As it stands, Lord Falconer’s Bill would in no way affect the lives of those people living with the horrifying reality of being trapped in largely useless bodies, for instance, through Motor Neurone Disease, yet these cases are often cited as reasons for changing the law. One can only speculate as to why such cases are being used to support the passing of a Bill which specifically excludes those very cases.  To make such a fundamental change in our health care legislation has a profound effect on what it means to accompany the dying and it can be seen as avoiding the challenge, albeit immense, to ease their suffering.”

Invitation

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jesuits of Farm Street Church, appalled at the dire conditions of the poor who suffered and died in the disease-ridden East End of London, invited the Sisters of Charity to establish one of London's first hospices. Among those who trained there was Dame Cicely Saunders who is credited as being the founder of the modern hospice movement. Fr Gallen says we would do well to heed her words when she said: “You matter because you are you and you matter till the last moment of your life, and not only will we help you die peacefully but to live until you die.”

Lord David Alton, who is a Governor of Stonyhurst College, says he will not vote in favour of Lord Falconer's Bill on Friday. “Those seeking to change the law are orchestrating a well organised and well-funded campaign to set aside the earlier decisions of Parliament to keep the law as it is – a just law which protects the vulnerable but is also merciful and compassionate,” he says. “The House of Lords will make an error if it rushes pell-mell into a law which, in due course, will lead to Dutch style euthanasia laws, where it is now lawful to kill the patient without the patient’s consent, or Belgian-style euthanasia laws which include the euthanasia of children.”

Lord Alton argues that the so-called right to die will soon become a duty to die – and to die quickly – and that is why, for reasons of public safety, he will oppose the Bill. “It is significant that the media frenzy which accompanies this debate never mentions … the opposition – predominantly on the grounds of public safety – of the British Medical Association … the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations (and others) – who eloquently set out all the negative outcomes which would result from a change in the law. 95% of Palliative Medicine Specialists – these are the people who care for dying patients day in and day out – are opposed to a change in the law. Are they – or those who oppose a change in the law - all uncaring?”

“There are, perhaps, no more emotive subjects than pain and suffering,” says Fr Gallen. “It is difficult therefore, if not impossible, to deliver a dispassionate statement on the ‘Assisted Dying Bill’, regardless of the stand one wishes to take on this issue. It is important though that a balanced and reasonable debate is heard.”

Read David Jones' article "Assisting the suicidal and caring for the dying" on Thinking Faith