Members of both Houses of Parliament gathered last week to champion the cause of sick and terminally ill patients who face the prospect Dutch-style euthanasia laws. On the day on which the parliamentarians joined with Right To Life in launching a Human Rights Care Card the British courts decided that it would be unlawful to assist a patient in committing suicide.The Human Rights Care Card may be carried in the same way that people currently carry organ-donor cards. The cards make it clear that if anyone withdraws fluids or food with the purpose of causing the death of the person carrying the card, they could be faced with legal action, followed if necessary by an application to the European Court of Human Rights. Phyllis Bowman, Director of Right To Life, made it clear that her organisation would be prepared to act on behalf of any families and finance any legal proceedings.
It is tragic that it has become necessary to take such steps but since the British Medical Association issued guidelines advocating the withdrawal of treatment, including assisted food and fluid from some patients not dying, it has made it more likely that some doctors will follow this course of action.
A series of legal decisions have also opened up loopholes in the protection of vulnerable patients – which will doubtless result in a case eventually being taken to the Eurpean Court of Human Rights.
One MP, Crosby’s Claire Curtis Thomas, movingly and eloquently outlined her opposition to the withdrawal of food and fluid after describing how doctors had tried to do this to her late mother.
Speaking on behalf of the all Party Pro-Life Group, the Vice Chairman, Jim Dobbin –Heywood and Middleton’s MP and staunch defender of the sanctity of human life – reminded the medical profession of its primary duty to heal and to care.
He said that “I would be the first to say that in a majority of cases, hospitals give proper care to the sick and the dying – but there can hardly be a Member of Parliament who has not received a complaint at some time during the last few years regarding treatment of the elderly and the dying in some hospitals.
He said that there were a variety of reasons why patients were now at greater risk: “sometimes this relates to poor nursing or to lack of staff. Staff leaving meals on the locker by the side of old patients who are not able to feed themselves – meaning that they are left hungry and undernourished, is fairly typical of the kind of case about which I have heard and read.”
One way in which the Government have been trying to address these concerns is their new method of classifying hospitals and which is a step in the right direction, giving families and friends a means of rectifying matters of poor nursing and care. But there are many other cases where patients have treatment – including assisted food and fluid – deliberately withdrawn with the specific purpose of ending their lives. the government needs to wake up to the reality of this.
The General Medical Council is currently producing Guidelines – the draft of which is a vast improvement on those produced by the BMA. Nonetheless, the Guidelines still accepts the principle of withdrawing assisted food and fluid with the purpose of causing death – and as the Diane Pretty case illustrates this would contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.
Food and fluid – howsoever delivered – is a basic human right and to describe it as ‘life-prolonging treatment’ is a deliberate distortion of terms used by people determined to introduce euthanasia by omission. Tube feeding is not a new technique; it has been in use for over a century and it is no more ‘life-prolonging treatment’ than is feeding a newborn baby by bottle. To kill somebody by starvation and dehydration is also an extremely cruel method of causing death.
Mr. Dobbin put it well when he reminded the parliamentary meeting of the odds stacked against the pro-life movement: “I am well aware that those opposing our views will immediately launch a campaign declaring that we intend to try to force doctors to keep people artificially alive and compel doctors to apply useless treatment. This is not so. Our sole aim is to allow people to die naturally and not to have their lives deliberately ended by the withdrawal of food and fluid.” pro lifers are not opposed to palliative care to ease the pain of patients, even though this may shorten their lives. We are not vitalists who believe that life should be maintained at all costs.
‘Intention’ is all-important in law. That is why the Human-Rights Care Card refer to the ‘purpose’ of the doctor or carer. If his or her ‘purpose’ is to cause death that is in breach of the Human Rights Convention and should lead to prosecution.
It is not unlawful to remove bedclothes from a patient. However, if the purpose in removing bedclothes is to cause death by hypothermia – that is unlawful. Most people have no problem whatsoever in understanding that. The same criteria must be applied to other aspects of caring for the old, the sick and the dying.
As Alison Davies of the pressure group, Alert, rightly said after the verdict in the Diane Pretty, if the decision had gone the other way it would open the floodgates to the legal killing of many disabled people. Society must understand that care and kill cannot be used as synonyms and that to die with dignity you do not need a relative or a doctor to kill you.