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'Assisted dying' risks being seen and used as a cheap solution for human suffering

'Assisted dying' risks being seen and used as a cheap solution for human suffering

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4 min read

Legalising euthanasia will only worsen the current provision of care for the terminally ill

Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill is the fourth attempt to legalise giving lethal drugs to terminally ill people to end their lives. The fundamental and practical flaws in the bill are clearly exposed by the range of amendments that have been put down. It is therefore surprising, and worrying, that proponents of what is being euphemistically called “assisted dying” have put forward an almost identical bill each time and have not addressed the concerns raised by the House on earlier occasions.

The bill would do nothing to plug deficits in care. It risks being seen and used as a cheap solution for human suffering. Every day, patients are failing to get the specialist palliative care they need, with patchy availability through reliance on voluntary sector funding. Introducing legislation for “assisted dying,” far from improving current provision of care for the terminally ill, would make the situation worse. 

The experience of those countries that have gone down the “assisted dying” road shows the development of palliative care is impeded where such legislation is in place. 

Canadian doctor Leonie Herx, writing in The Telegraph in October 2021 about her country’s experience, said: “The impact on palliative medicine has been enormous. Hospices that do not offer assisted death face closure and loss of government funding… Administering death is cheaper and easier than providing good care.”

Diverting time, effort and resources away from improving palliative care will do nothing for those who are not getting the care they desperately need, nor for a healthcare system already under severe strain. Worse, it suggests to terminally ill people that dignity and disease are incompatible, and sends the subliminal message that ending one’s life should be considered.

The bill is, in effect, asking Parliament to sign a blank cheque

By normalising suicide, such legislation creates a lacuna in suicide prevention strategies. Suicide rates in the UK have fallen in recent decades. Contrast this with Oregon, where the overall suicide rate (excluding assisted suicides) has risen by 17 per cent since “assisted dying” was legalised. Oregon’s suicide rate remains one of the highest in the United States. 

We are constantly assured that an “assisted dying” law would come with “stringent safeguards”. But Baroness Meacher’s bill does not contain any actual safeguards. All it contains are vague phrases about the need to be sure that someone requesting lethal drugs is making a voluntary and informed request, has a settled wish to take their own life, and has the capacity to make the decision. 

But it contains no minimum steps that a doctor, or the court, faced with such a request must take to ensure the required conditions actually exist. 

Quite apart from the unreliability of prognosis of terminal illness, the personal and social judgments required are as complex as their consequences are awesome. In reality, the so-called safeguards are nothing more than statements of what the bill’s supporters envisage happening in an ideal world.

Proponents of the bill try to reassure us that all this would be dealt with subsequently if Parliament agreed to change the law. But the question has to be asked: how can Parliament decide whether the law should be changed until it has seen how the safeguards would work in practice and satisfied itself that they would be effective? 

We are not talking about tax law here. We are talking about life-or-death judgments and offering lethal drugs to end life. Yet Baroness Meacher’s bill treats safeguards as second-order issues for tick-boxes. 

For such a major change to the law, safeguards are of the essence, not details for later consideration. The bill is, in effect, asking Parliament to sign a blank cheque.

All this has been pointed out to the euthanasia lobby time and time again, but nothing has been done to remedy this major deficiency. Instead, we see the same set of proposals served up time after time. They have previously been rejected as deficient and they should be rejected now. As legislators we deserve better.

Baroness Finlay is a Crossbench peer

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