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Assisted Dying Defeated, for Now
LONDON, MAY 20, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Britain's House of Lords sidelined an attempt to facilitate assisted-suicide for those seriously ill. Lord Joel Joffe, who has made other similarly defeated attempts in the recent past, proposed for consideration the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.

The bill had divided opinions over the last few months, culminating in a seven-hour debate and vote in the Lords on May 13. The next day's Times newspaper reported that the House of Lords was packed as on few other recent occasions for the debate. There were even three baronesses present, in motorized wheelchairs, to oppose the bill.

In the end the Lords voted 148-100 to delay the bill for six months. Afterward, Joffe pledged to continue his campaign for legalizing assisted suicide.

Churches and pro-life groups had carried out a well-organized campaign to defeat the proposal. On March 16, Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff sent a letter to all parish priests in England and Wales explaining how the Catholic Church was organizing to defeat the bill.

The archbishop, who is chairman of the Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the bishops' conference of England and Wales, also sent out for use in the parishes a leaflet explaining what individuals could do to defeat the proposal. The leaflet was produced by the Care Not Killing Alliance, which is formed by medical groups, organizations representing disabled people and churches, including the Catholic Church.

In April, leaders of various faith groups wrote an open letter to all members of Parliament and the House of Lords. The groups, which ranged from Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Jews, to Muslims and Sikhs, expressed their concern at the attempt to change the law and added that they "hold all human life to be sacred and worthy of the utmost respect."

Palliative care

The letter also commented that palliative care is advancing very rapidly, both in relieving suffering experienced by those with a terminal illness, as well as in providing support for their families. The leaders called upon politicians to take steps to ensure adequate training is given to doctors and nurses to adequately treat such patients. They also asked that more centers of specialist palliative care be established.

"The argument that assisted suicide or euthanasia is necessary to deal with the suffering of terminal illness is false," they argued. Moreover, they added that in countries where assisted suicide or euthanasia is legalized there are serious concerns over how it is applied. In the Netherlands, for example, 1 in every 32 deaths arises from legal or illegal euthanasia. As well, Dutch pro-euthanasia groups are campaigning for further relaxations of the law to extend it, for example, to people with dementia.

The faith leaders also noted that most doctors oppose assisted dying. In fact, medical opposition has actually intensified in recent years.

Just prior to the parliamentary debate, some of the leaders wrote another letter, published May 12 in the Times. It was signed by Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

"We urge legislators to withhold support for this Bill," the leaders wrote, "so as to ensure that British law continues to safeguard the principle that the intention to kill, or assist in the killing, of an innocent human being is wrong."

"Compassion for the terminally ill is incumbent on all of us," they stated. But this does not mean there is any "right to die." Such a "right" would, for the vulnerable, soon become "a duty to die," the religious leaders warned.

The danger that Joffe's bill would lead to more and more widespread euthanasia was one of points highlighted in a briefing paper prepared by the Care Not Killing Alliance.

The bill contained within it the seeds of its own extension, the paper explained: "If we are allowing assisted dying for reasons of compassion, then why deny it to patients who are suffering unbearably but not terminally ill?" The paper warned that legal challenges under the Human Rights Act would very probably, and quickly, lead to a situation where assisted suicide would be established as a therapeutic option for anyone.

Autonomy's limit

The briefing also dealt with the question of autonomy, since supporters of assisted suicide often push their proposals under the justification of allowing people to take charge of their own lives. "Autonomy is important," stated the paper, "but we have laws because autonomy is not absolute."

Moreover, the paper continued, the plea for personal autonomy must be weighed against other factors, such as the following:

-- Most people who ask for euthanasia do not actually want it. Terminally ill people often suffer from depression which can foment suicidal thoughts. In most cases this can be effectively treated. What is needed, therefore, is better care.

-- Vulnerable people will feel pressure to request euthanasia. People who are dying might often feel they are a burden on relatives and society short of resources. A law allowing euthanasia would put pressure on them to consider assisted suicide as a therapeutic option.

-- Euthanasia cannot be controlled. Experience in the Netherlands clearly shows that there is a progression from assisted suicide to voluntary or involuntary euthanasia.

-- Euthanasia would change the nature of medicine. Euthanasia would split the medical profession, leading many doctors who conscientiously object to be excluded from specialties where euthanasia becomes part of the normal range of services.

Not a civilized option

The campaign leading up to the parliamentary vote also saw many personal testimonies by handicapped people or those who had suffered serious illnesses, warning against the temptation to make it easy for people to choose suicide.

In the Observer newspaper on May 7, David Williams, now 51, told how when he was 35 he was diagnosed with a tumor and was given only a few years to live. Williams said if doctor-assisted suicide had been available he would have considered it, "purely on the basis of the suffering my wife was going through." Instead he was treated for the pain and later the cancer went into remission. Moreover, a few years after his recovery, his wife died suddenly from liver cancer. Had Williams chosen suicide his children would have become orphans.

Writing in the May 9 issue of the Guardian newspaper, Jane Campbell, a Disability Rights commissioner, explained how she suffers from a severe form of spinal muscular atrophy.
"Many people who do not know me," she commented, "believe I would be 'better off dead.'"

This sort of view is based mainly on ignorance, or even prejudice, argued Campbell. In fact, she noted, Joffe's bill failed to get the endorsement of a single organization of disabled people. Groups representing the terminally ill and disabled, frightened by what the bill seeks to achieve, formed a coalition, Not Dead Yet, to fight the proposal.

"The defeat of Lord Joffe's Bill is very important and welcome," commented Archbishop Peter Smith in a press release Tuesday. He warned, however, that the issue will return to Parliament in the future. The archbishop recommended that the Care Not Killing Alliance continue to press for improvements in palliative care. "Assisted suicide and euthanasia," he concluded, "cannot be the way forward for a civilized society."