Investing in palliative care will help build a more compassionate society
We must invest in strengthening the nature of our society by raising the level of palliative care and resist all efforts towards facilitating the death of the vulnerable among us.
Earlier this month, a cross party group of Parliamentarians heard from internationally renowned Dutch ethicist Professor Theo Boer who, in 2002, initially supported the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in the Netherlands. He was subsequently involved in the legislation’s implementation. This experience caused him to radically revise his position.
Initially, the extent of the legislation’s application was limited to cases involving terminal illness, with a focus on avoidance of pain in death. Professor Boer explained how the scope of the legislation was then gradually extended to include people with physical illness not necessarily nearing death, and subsequently to people facing mental illness.
In this unravelling, Professor Boer explained how he came to appreciate that once choosing death becomes permissible in one set of circumstances, such as terminal illness, it becomes logically impossible to hold this position without discriminating against others.
Indeed, the suffering of someone experiencing acute mental illness may well be greater than that of someone experiencing terminal illness.
Palliative care may not always seem like an easy or perfect answer, but its importance cannot be overstated.
This experience is in no way unique to the Netherlands.
In 2016, Canada passed a law allowing assisted suicide for those in pain for whom death was “reasonably foreseeable”. In 2019, however, the Canadian Courts ruled in favour of two people who wanted to die but for whom death was not reasonably foreseeable, deeming that constraint to be a violation of their rights.
Once choosing death is legalised and thereby legitimised, Professor Boer argued it fundamentally changes the nature of society. All too quickly, a “right to die” for some becomes a “duty” for many more, profoundly impoverishing our communities.
People who think they are a burden effectively abdicate the protection they should rightly enjoy, and which people do enjoy in states where assisted suicide is illegal. This is also demonstrated, for example, in Oregon and Washington, where not wanting to be a burden has been cited as a reason for seeking assisted suicide in more than 50% of cases.
Palliative care may not always seem like an easy or perfect answer, but its importance cannot be overstated. In grasping this, two points must be understood.
First, the contrast between good and sub-standard palliative care can make all the difference – more investment is needed.
Second, calls for assisted suicide need to be seen in the context of the very extensive costs to society of not only making death a policy option, but actively validating a vulnerable person’s desire to kill themselves.
Assisted suicide abandons vulnerable people to their death, rather than valuing their life; we must invest in strengthening the nature of our society by raising the level of palliative care and resist all efforts towards facilitating the death of the vulnerable among us.