The New Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be A Burden: Thou Shalt Not Live


By David Alton

Universe Column June 1st 2003

Next Friday, June 6th the House of Lords debates the Joffe Bill on euthanasia. In seeking to give people “the right to be killed” it risks turning euthanasia into a duty. Sick and disabled people will be made to believe that they are a burden on society or their relatives. In constantly emphasising blocked hospital beds and waiting lists, vulnerable people – many of them acutely depressed already – will feel they owe it to their relatives and to society to seek a lethal injection. The age old commandment given to Moses, Thou Shalt Not Kill will be abjured and replaced by a new injunction not to be a burden and not to live.

This is precisely what is happening in Holland – where first they turned a blind eye to so called mercy killing. This decriminalisation inevitably led in turn to the legalising of voluntary euthanasia and now to involuntary euthanasia. 1 in 4 euthanasia deaths in Holland are now involuntary.

Once euthanasia becomes normative doctors then stop bothering to report what they are doing. At a meeting organised by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in Parliament, Professor John Griffiths of the Faculty of Law, University of Groningen, admitted that only 50% to 60% of cases of euthanasia in the Netherlands are reported to the proper authorities. More worryingly still, Professor Griffiths admitted that it is the “more problematic” cases that are escaping the control system. In other words, despite what Lord Joffe’s supporters say, it is impossible to establish an effective regulatory framework for assisted suicide and euthanasia..

A broad coalition has been built in opposition to Lord Joffe’s Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill. Along with the British Medical Association, the Chief Rabbi, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, both the Disability Rights Commission and Help the Aged have confirmed that they do not support the Bill.

The Disability Rights Commission say: “Until we are convinced that sufficient regulation and safeguards can, and will be, put in place to ensure the right to life of disabled people, we will not support the legalisation of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia.”

Help the Aged say: “This (the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill) is not a Bill that Help the Aged would support, because we do not support changes to the law relating to euthanasia.”

Dr Nigel Sykes, the Medical Director of St Christopher’s Hospice, in London says there is undoubtedly sympathy for euthanasia among the general public. “However” he said, “patients themselves usually do not want euthanasia. Euthanasia is a minority interest amongst the terminally ill. It is only those who are healthy who want Lord Joffe’s Bill.”

There are major difficulties with the definitions in the Bill. Just what is meant by ‘suffering unbearably’, what is a ‘serious and progressive physical illness’? Advanced or perhaps even not so advanced rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes would fall under the definition of ‘serious physical illness’ and euthanasia would become a ‘symptom-control choice’, one option of ‘treatment’ among others. Having watched my own mother die of crippling arthritis I am not unaware of the loss of dignity and the suffering of serious illness. But I also know what would have been lost if I had commissioned her premature death or if she had been encouraged to believe that her life was worthless and that she would have been better off dead.

If society endorses euthanasia as an ‘appropriate treatment choice’ for competent patients, surely it will be only a matter of time until euthanasia will be offered as appropriate ‘treatment’ to patients that are temporarily or permanently incompetent.

Before Peers debate this Bill next Friday write and urge them to think again (House of Lords, London SW1A OPW, telephone 0207 219 3000).

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