End-of-life care can’t be compassionate without assisted dying [OPINION]

Assisted dying should be legalised
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If end-of-life care in the UK is to be truly compassionate, then it must also include some form of assisted dying as an option.

The state of Victoria in Australia has decided to legalise euthanasia. From 2019, terminally ill patients in the state will be able to make a request to take medication to end their lives or, if they’re unable to do so, can have a doctor administer the medication.

The Catholic view

Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart described the legalisation of euthanasia in Victoria as “deeply regrettable and most disappointing”. He added:

Catholic health and aged care providers will continue to accompany those who face death, always striving to provide the best care to them and their loved ones. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are not part of their practise and are incompatible with the provision of quality palliative care.

The Catholic Church has long opposed euthanasia. Pope Francis has called it a ‘sin against God’. But as the bill states:

Every person approaching the end of life should be provided with quality care to minimise the person’s suffering and maximise the person’s quality of life.

This is the aim of assisted dying. If the Archbishop says that euthanasia is incompatible with caring for a patient, then minimising suffering and maximising quality of life must not be the primary concern. Indeed, the Church teaches that it is always wrong for a doctor to help end the life of a patient since only God has this authority.

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The Church allows for patients to refuse treatment that would extend their life. But doing so could result in a painful and undignified death. A common requirement in assisted dying legislation around the world is that there must be intolerable suffering involved. I believe this is the compassionate basis of euthanasia. After all, if we afford our pets the relief of a painless, easy death at their end of their lives, why should we deny this to people?

Challenges

It is not clear who should qualify for it. In the Netherlands and Belgium, for example, patients do not have to be suffering from a physical, terminal illness. Patients suffering from mental health conditions, such as depression, are also eligible. For many, this is a step too far, creating a kind of slippery slope. On the other hand, philosopher David Benatar says mental suffering can be as unbearable as physical suffering and “would like to see euthanasia and assisted suicide permitted in… a wider range of cases”. He argues:

To force people to die when they think that their lives are still worth living would be an undue interference with people’s freedom. It is no less a violation of human freedom to force a continuation of life when people believe that their continued life is worse than death.

I am sceptical about giving patients with depression the right to die. I agree with Benatar that mental suffering can be unbearable, but even with severe depression, there is still the chance of drastic improvement. It is therefore wise that Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill states that people living with mental illness are not eligible. Labor MP and Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews says the state’s bill is “safe” and the “most conservative scheme anywhere in the world”.

Fighting for the right to die

Many patients in the UK with incurable, advanced and progressive illnesses desperately want assisted dying to be legalised. So much so that they will travel to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland to have this carried out. But this experience can be distressing for both the patient and their loved ones.

End-of-life care should be about reducing suffering, not increasing it. This means making a painless, peaceful and dignified death an option when nothing else is available to improve the quality of the patient’s life.

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