A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
THE Oireachtas Committee on Justice is giving consideration to the Private Members’ Bill, tabled last year by TD Gino Kenny, which seeks to allow people with a terminal illness to be helped to end their lives (assisted suicide). The Committee invited submissions from various groups and associations and it has received quite a number of responses.
In its submission, The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission expressed grave reservations about the proposed Bill, warning that it was missing significant safeguards to protect a person’s right to life, which could easily lead to abuse.
In particular, the Commission was concerned that the rights of more vulnerable people might be jeopardised which would include the elderly, the terminally ill and people with disabilities. There is a danger that vulnerable people could easily feel coerced into seeking assisted suicide because they consider themselves a burden on family and society. The commission also notes that the Bill omits to highlight the right to palliative care and that it lacks any proposal for some form of regulatory framework which would ensure a person’s right to participate in decision-making.
The Irish Bishops, in their submission, argued that assisted suicide reflects a failure of compassion on the part of society.
‘With good palliative care, people who in desperation might ask to have their lives ended, do change their minds. Suicide/euthanasia is irreversible’
“It is a failure to respond to the challenge of caring for terminally ill patients as they approach the end of their lives.” They were particularly concerned that the Bill is based on a utilitarian ethic, which ignores the fact that “our value as persons is rooted in who we are rather than in our life expectancy or our ability to reach certain standards of physical or mental performance”.
I think it is instructive to reflect on the response to the Bill of doctors in Ireland at the coalface of caring for dying patients. Seventeen consultants in Palliative Medicine (including Dr Fergal Twomey, acting chair of the Irish Palliative Medicine Consultants Association) state that, “The threats of the proposed Bill to healthcare in Ireland, to the true meaning of the doctor-patient relationship and to the future of what we know compassionate and supportive specialist palliative care to be are many. We worry about the impact on people who already struggle to have their voices heard in our society – older adults, the disabled, those with mental illness and others. We worry that the most vulnerable are those who may be made to feel a burden to their families and come under pressure to end their lives prematurely.”
Dr Twomey claims that every clause in the proposed legislation has “significant weaknesses” and that the Bill “is poorly constructed and leaves the population open to significant risk”… “The Bill, as it stands, is very open to significant misuse and abuse and encompasses any person in Ireland who has any chronic condition.”
The Royal College of Physicians in Ireland in a position paper stated that “the potential harms of assisted suicide outweigh the arguments in favour of legislation for assisted suicide” and contends that a “majority” of healthcare professionals and bodies worldwide support this view.
All of the above respondents to the proposed Bill implicitly contend that the introduction of assisted suicide and euthanasia is a matter of public morality. In other words, it is not simply an issue of private morality. Many are campaigning for the legalising of assisted suicide/euthanasia, on the grounds that people should have freedom to choose to end their lives if they are terminally ill and suffering. They contend that such an action would have no impact on the overall good and stability of society. But a brief review of the consequences of legalising euthanasia in other countries would indicate that the consequences are indeed catastrophic for older people and for people with disabilities.
In countries where legalised assisted suicide has been introduced (such as Holland, Belgium and Canada) there has been an exponential increase in the number of people availing of this option. (In Canada, 5.631 people opted for assisted suicide in 2019. Only 1,015 lives were ended this way when the legislation was first introduced in 2015).
There has also been a wide expansion of the grounds for euthanasia. For example, in the Netherlands, people with non-terminal psychiatric conditions can now be euthanised. A 29-year-old woman who was interviewed on the topic admitted that she has chosen to be voluntarily euthanised because of her mental health issues. Two deaf twin brothers (45 years old) opted for euthanasia when they discovered they would soon go blind. The Dutch Parliament is even considering expanding euthanasia for those over 75 who are simply tired of life. The Dutch Supreme Court has ruled that people with dementia can now opt for assisted suicide. More worryingly, a patient with dementia who does not give consent, can be euthanised by a doctor who will not face prosecution for doing so.
Legalising assisted rights of the vulnerable in our community will have profound repercussions for the overall good of society. It will inevitably undermine respect for the right to life and compromise the rights of the most vulnerable and thus the stability of society. The judgement in the Marie Fleming case in 2013 supports this contention.
“Even with the most rigorous systems of legislative checks and safeguards, it would be impossible to ensure that the aged, the disabled, the poor, the unwanted, the rejected, the lonely, and emotionally vulnerable would not avail of this option to avoid a sense of being a burden to their family and society.”
Surely we can be more compassionate and creative in our response to human suffering. We could, for example, expand the availability of good palliative care and resource its development. With good palliative care, people who in desperation might ask to have their lives ended, do change their minds. Suicide/euthanasia is irreversible.