Euthanasia: scaring us to death

Those who support the legalisation of assisted suicide have become the chief fearmongers in the debate.

Kevin Yuill

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Topics Politics

The scaremongering that has created so much heat and so little light on the teacher/sex-offender debate in the UK this week is no isolated incident. The discussion of assisted suicide and euthanasia is the latest topic to be dominated by hysterical fears. Hot on the heels of reports about a Durham-based doctor accused of randomly killing patients, a report by Professor Clive Seale of Brunel University has been leapt upon by the press. ‘Euthanasia: doctors aid 3,000 deaths’, squealed the lead story in yesterday’s Guardian (17 January 2005).

Closer inspection reveals less reason for panic. Seale interviewed 857 doctors anonymously and estimated, by extrapolating from the results, that less than half of one per cent of the 584,791 UK deaths in 2004 involved either involuntary or voluntary euthanasia. This figure of nearly 3,000 broke down into 1,930 (0.33 per cent of all deaths) cases of ‘involuntary’ deaths, whereby the doctor ends a patient’s life with no special request, and 936 (0.16 per cent of all deaths) cases where the patient made some sort of request. In approximately one-third of all deaths (170,000), doctors withdrew treatment or drugs that had the effect of hastening the death of the patient.

Even then, the report stressed that these situations happened in the final few hours of life. Seale stated of the 3,000 figure: ‘Basically a case in this category is often someone who is very close to death – maybe a few hours away – but suffering not in a way that they can communicate. Often doctors think the best solution is to end their lives. Or they can be people who have made the request in the past but are no longer competent’, he said.

The debate surrounding the report is striking for a number of reasons. First, those like the Guardian and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society who support Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying Bill used to present themselves as the forces of reason, forever lecturing those who resisted such legislation on the importance of being rational and calm about the matter. For years they reassured us that the ‘slippery slope’ perspective, whereby doctors given the power to make decisions about life and death would suddenly turn from benevolent Dr Jekylls into bloodthirsty Mr Hydes, was a myth. Now they are the chief scaremongers in the debate.

Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, thus announced in relation to the new report: ‘This research proves that some doctors break the law and deliberately help patients die. This is all done in secret and denied in public. Some of these doctors are acting compassionately on their patients’ wishes, but some clearly act without consent. This cannot be safe.’ Here is the slippery slope argument Mark II, to scare people into supporting Assisted Dying legislation. They talk of a dark time when ‘back alley’ suicides are often botched (meaning that, horror of horrors, the attempted suicide lives!) and doctors prey on ‘the most vulnerable’ who are ‘at risk from abuse’.

But perhaps we should be concerned that the figures are so low. Professor Seale said: ‘British doctors are somewhat less willing to break the law and engage in these acts than doctors in other countries. In general there is a culture of palliative care.’ Maybe. Or maybe, as the Guardian observed, British doctors are concerned about the effects on their careers – post-Shipman – that administering high doses of morphine may have. We might in fact be seeing a rise in needlessly painful deaths due to the reticence of the British medical profession.

One fact, at least, shows that a change in the law has less solid support than suicide self-help groups like the Voluntary Euthanasia Society might like to think they have. The survey revealed that only 2.6 per cent of doctors said changing the law would benefit patients. Doctors – who attend death scenes regularly, unlike many advocates of Lord Joffe’s Bill, who must rely on their somewhat fevered imaginations – know that filling out an extra set of forms, having lawyers present instead of priests, and having a two-week ‘cooling off’ period would probably harm rather than help the interests of patients.

Meanwhile, in Oregon

In the United States Supreme Court, the federal government lost its bid to restrict the right of doctors within the state of Oregon to prescribe lethal doses of medicine with which terminally ill patients can commit suicide. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft declared the Oregon doctors ran foul of the federal Controlled Substances Act, which trumps the 1997 Oregon legislation. In truth, however, the decision reflected not a turn towards judicial sponsorship of assisted suicide but a victory for states’ rights – and democracy.

The precedent for this case came up last term when three judges voted to let California uphold its legalisation of home-grown ‘medical marijuana’. Though they were defeated, the Court was guided by its own declaration, in a 1997 case that refused to recognise a constitutional ‘right to die’, that the issue should be up to the states.

This is a positive ruling because it upholds the right of Oregon’s voters to vote directly on this issue and others. Those of us who oppose legalisation of assisted suicide must take our case directly to voters rather than rely upon legal tricks. A sane, rational, non-hysterical discussion is in our interest, not in the suicide advocates’.

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spiked-issue: Euthanasia

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