Euthanasia

Sarah Meagher, one of the terrific women at CCB, was interviewed for Channel Four’s ‘4Thought’ slot. It went online today. You can see it here. She did a great job. And the editing left a represeantative record of what I’m confident Sarah would have said. You may want to watch the two minute slot and then make a comment at the end.

I can still vividly recall many of the events surrounding James’ death. More importantly I can still remember him. I remember him telling me that I needed to go to hospital to get my stomach checked out when we met to read the Bible together one lunchtime during his extensive periods of recovery from chemotherapy. He was right. Later that night I was admitted at A&E for an appendectomy! I remember his servant heartedness above everything. He was a man who did the hidden humble jobs.

Shortly after James died I wrote to the Co-Mission staff who knew and loved both him and Sarah.

Dear Everyone

I thought that you’d want to know that James Meagher was admitted to the Marsden on Friday night for what is expected to be his last time. He will not be returning home but is expected to die in the next few days. His secondary tumour is the one unexpectedly causing the problems. Internal bleeding in his brain is causing his body to slowly close down. He is not in pain but in a steady but stable state of deterioration. He has moments of limited lucidity and has said he’s ‘ready to go’. He is in Sarah’s words, ‘dying well’. I’ve been able to see him on three occasions in the last few days and we’ve read the bible, I’ve reassured him of the gospel promise of life and the prospect of going home to meet his Saviour and we’ve prayed. He is in good heart, though a pale shadow of his former self.

Few of the Doctors thought that he’d survive longer than Saturday morning. In one sense his prolonged demise is problematic. The family are weary, they’ve had very little sleep and they’re ready for him to go. They’ve said their goodbyes and for James’ sake they’re keen for him to move on to the next stage of his life. Wonderfully there’s great confidence among the Christian family about where he’s going. Being among them is a great privilege. Once I’d found my feet I’ve been able to lead them in praying together in the waiting room and by James’ bedside. The atmosphere is one of encouragement, support and prayerful godliness. It’s not at all awkward, they are terrific Christian people.

If you wanted to pray then asking God to grant him a swift death would be high up Sarah’s list of priorities. She is bearing up well. She is grieving already, she’s very, very sad to be losing the man she loves but she’s thrilled for him that he’ll be miraculously healed within a matter of a few hours. She is being looked after by a terrific Christian woman called Audrey Nelson. Audrey is one of Sarah’s prayer partners at CCB and she has resolved to be a constant companion throughout this ordeal.

Obviously lots of people at CCB are terribly upset and, as you would expect, there have been lots of tears. But as wonderful a servant as James was in his five years with us, in the providence of God, his death may well accomplish even more. There’s a fresh realisation that church is not a hobby, that Christ’s death is more than just an idea and there’s real appreciation that church is a family. We’ve been able to remind one another that this is why Christ died. For me I’ve been reminded that this is why we do the job that we do – we’re helping people to die in faith. So do pray that the Lord would teach all of us at CCB that we’re not invulnerable to death, that Christ is a wonderful Saviour and that the gospel is life and death. Hope to see you later on today. With best wishes in Christ

Perks

Back  in 2006 I wrote this article on the subject of euthanasia.

Written prior to the defeat of the Joffe Bill

On May 12th the House of Lords will debate a Bill which, if passed by Parliament, will allow Doctors to help certain patients kill themselves. The ‘Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill’ Bill has been introduced by Lord Joffe. The Bill enables ‘an adult who has capacity and who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his own considered and persistent request’. In essence it seeks to legalise Physician Assisted Suicide [PAS] but not euthanasia.

Parliamentary Procedure

The Bill will be debated in the House of Lords early on Friday 12 May 2006. There will be a debate but no vote at this stage. This will then be followed by the Committee stage (beginning two weeks or so later) where the House of Lords consider detailed amendments to the Bill. There is then a final report and third reading stage when the Bill, as amended in Committee, can be further amended and is then voted on by the House. This would be likely to be in the late spring of next year (2007). Even if the Bill were to pass all its stages in the House of Lords, it would still need to go through the House of Commons to become law. But because the Government has effectively taken a neutral position on the Bill it seems unlikely that the Bill would be given time to be debated and progress through the House of Commons during the current Parliamentary session, which will end in Autumn 2006.

Definitions

Euthanasia comes from the Greek ‘euthanatos’ which literally translates as ‘good death’. The Christian Medical Foundation defines euthanasia as ‘the intentional killing by act or omission of a person whose life is felt not to be worth living’. In voluntary euthanasia the Doctor both prescribes and administers a lethal dose of medication. Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) is voluntary euthanasia one stage removed. In PAS the Doctor prescribes a lethal medication but the patient administers the dose himself or herself. But the intention in both is the same, which is to end the life of the patient. If PAS is legalised it would in effect legalise voluntary euthanasia since some patients will be too incapacitated to administer their own lethal medication and because some PAS is unsuccessful and the Doctor would be required to act on behalf of the patient.

What does this mean in practice?

For example, someone suffering from Motor Neurone Disease worried about an undignified end to life and the attendant suffering could request PAS. Instead of facing a slow degenerative decline they could decide to end life by taking a lethal dose which would be self-administered under the supervision of a Doctor.

Why has this come about?

The impetus for this legislation has arisen because of vocal pressure groups like the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, now controversially renamed as Dignity in Dying. High profile cases like Diane Pretty who took her fight for the right to die to the European Court of Human Rights, died of motor neurone disease in 2002, or Dr Anne Turner, a 66 year old retired GP who suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). She travelled to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland with her three children and a BBC Television crew to commit suicide have been afforded widespread media coverage, understandably generate great sympathy from the general public. When advocates of PAS employ phrases like ‘mercy killing’ the debate becomes emotionally loaded. It’s a phrase we might use of a desperately sick animal which we might ‘put it out of its misery’. But it’s one thing to kill a pet and its another to kill your Mother.

Three factors contribute to the support for PAS and euthanasia. [The headings are influenced by John Stott, ‘Abortion and Euthanasia’, Chapter 15, New Issues Facing Christians Today]

1. Society increasingly denies the sanctity of human life

The Christian doctrine of the sanctity of human life can no longer be assumed. The scriptural teaching that God is our creator and therefore we are not our own and so human life is not our property to dispense with as we choose is alien to secular thinking. Society increasingly fears an undignified death One of the strongest incentives of those campaigning for euthanasia is that they are afraid of having to endure or watch their loved ones endure the horrors of a painful, lingering, undignified death. That can be caused by uncontrollable or unbearable pain, being subjected to the de-humanising effect of modern medical technology or suffering the ultimate humiliation of total helplessness.

2. Society increasingly values self determination

Advocates of euthanasia are strident in their defence of human autonomy. They believe that every human being has the right to make decisions about their own life and that no institution or individual has the authority to deny them that right.

What are we to make of this?

1. PAS will undeniably lead to the deliberate killing of human life.

The Bill allows an ‘innocent’ life to be taken and therefore contravenes the biblical prohibition against murder. The Law ought to protect the vulnerable and provide a framework for acceptable behaviour. But this new legislation will not inhibit sin but instead encourage it by making it legal to help in the suicide of another or to actively bring to an end the life of a patient.

2. PAS will undoubtedly lead to incremental extension.

It has been argued that PAS will lead to voluntary euthanasia since there will be cases where the Doctor will ‘complete the job‘ without fear of prosecution. There is also indication that voluntary euthanasia will also lead on to compulsory euthanasia. And so passing a law to allow this would have implications for all terminally ill people across the UK. This can be seen in Holland, where the law allows voluntary euthanasia under strict guidelines. Yet these guidelines are often ignored and studies have shown that euthanasia is occasionally carried out without even consulting the patient, who had been mentally competent. Official statistics show that in 20001 there were 4,664 cases of medical intervention to shorten life. Yet of these there was no explicit request from the patient for euthanasia in 938 cases (20%).

3. PAS will probably lead to the abusive manipulation of others.

It’s hard to prove that people have been manipulated into choosing PAS or euthanasia since by definition the key witness is dead. However, this legislation does nothing to protect the vulnerable but instead makes it easier for people who feel uncertain about whether their lives are worth living to be pressured into terminating their lives prematurely. Those called ‘right to die’ could easily become the ‘duty to die’ for those who felt themselves to be a burden to others and therefore with an obligation to request an early death.

4. PAS will inevitably lead to a change in the Doctor Patient relationship.

Doctors will in effect no longer be carers with cure as their ambition, but potential killers. The Hippocratic Oath states, ‘I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgement and never do harm to anyone. To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice, which may cause his death’. PAS has a failure rate. Some patients vomit, while others through tolerance acquired from previous medication fail to die despite large doses of drugs. In these situations it will be the Doctor who will be required to administer the fatal dose. This is perhaps why the overwhelming majority of Doctors are against any change in the current legislation. In a survey carried out six months ago 69% of Doctors polled thought that PAS and/or Euthanasia was unnecessary.

What’s the alternative?

Christians [among others – see Care Not Killing] want to promote Palliative Care. With modern advances in the care of the terminally ill there is no need for such patients to suffer uncontrolled physical pain or discomfort. Dr Yolande Saunders MRCGP writing about palliative care says, ‘Palliative care is a multi-disciplinary science which has been developed over the last 30 years in order to help terminally ill people – and their families – to deal with both the physical symptoms and the psychological and emotional distress that advanced illnesses can cause. The focus of palliative care is on enhancing quality of life, enabling patients to live as actively as possible until they die naturally and peacefully, where possible with their families around them. It involves a holistic approach to end of- life care, combining up-to-date pain and symptom control, specialist disease management using effective drugs, and psychological and social support tailored to each individual’s personal needs. Its aim is to ensure dignity, autonomy and the relief of suffering, providing a support system to help patients and their families to cope during the illness. It seeks neither to hasten nor to postpone death’ [here]. And so the suggestion that the only way to ‘kill the pain’ is to ‘kill the patient’ is dangerously wrong.

What can we do?

We need to do all we can to change the hearts and minds of the public and to do all we can to ensure that the new bill does not get beyond the House of Lords. The following are some of the things that we can do.

  • Write to members of the House of Lords as the second reading of the Joffe Bill approaches on 12 May urging them to oppose the bill and vote against it. Instructions of how to do this are found on the Care Not Killing web site.
  • Meet your local MP to share your concerns. This is not an onerous as it sounds and after all they are employed to represent us. You could go with a flat mate or a like minded friend for support.
  • Join the Care Not Killing Alliance on the web site and encourage others to do the same.
  • Be informed by reading this checking the Care Not Killing regularly for updated information and comment on the Joffe bill.
  • Pray for changed minds and hearts, for all those involved in the debate and specifically that the bill will not proceed. Pray particularly for leaders in the churches to wake up to what is happening.
  • Give thanks for the recent successful launch of Care Not Killing and that the majority of medical opinion is still strongly against euthanasia.

Further Reading

  • Andrew Fergusson, ‘Euthanasia’, Christian Choices in Healthcare

Web Sites

Notes

There’s a clear distinction in medicine between one the one hand taking action with the specific intention of shortening life and on the other withholding treatment because that treatment is of no further benefit to the patient or is burdensome to the patient. It’s also acceptable to administer pain relieving drugs when the necessary desired effect is to relieve the pain but where there is a secondary and undesirable effect of shortening life.

Supporters of the Bill claim that since 1997 the State of Oregon has provided an ‘abuse free’ model of assisted suicide. But the evidence from Oregon relies on self-reporting from Doctors who have practised assisted suicide and they are not reported by the authorities. Of the cases made public questions have been raised about whether the patient was pressurised or clinically depressed

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