Euthanasia debate at Royal Geographical Society

Lord Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, joined Lord Alex Carlile and Patrick “Paddy” Stone at London’s Royal Geographical Society on Tuesday to argue against the legalization of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Their opponents were Emily Jackson, Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, the campaigner Debbie Purdy and the moral philosopher Mary Warnock.

Both Emily Jackson and Debbie Purdy valued palliative care but argued that because assisted suicide is not legal, those who fear a loss of autonomy will have to go abroad to die alone and will consequently die earlier than necessary. By contrast Mary Warnock did not see autonomy as a right but argued that palliative care is not available in all cases and that pain can not always be avoided.

Lord Harries began by stating that he would not contend that it is up to God to decide the moment of an individual’s death. Instead he questioned the assumption that the lowly individual in control of his or her life defines what it is to be human. Most people are dependent on others at the start and end of their lives, and the idea that dignity disappears alongside autonomy is clearly false. His mother experienced a slow death but she fought to the end and there were moments of happiness. Society should provide not just palliative care but the message that such people are valued.

According to Paddy Stone, most hospice doctors, like him, are opposed to assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Patients are entitled to refuse any life prolonging treatment at any stage of their life, and can write legally binding advance refusals of treatment. doctors are very bad at guessing whether or not a patient is terminally ill, but a doctor would be legally required to offer a patient with, for example, advanced cancer the options of chemotherapy, palliative care and assisted suicide. This could very easily lead to a vulnerable majority feeling obliged to choose the latter. Assisted suicide can not be separated from euthanasia, and in the Netherlands, one in five cases of assisted suicide ends with the prescription of a lethal injection by a doctor.  Yet in that country there is a campaign for it to be available to the elderly and lonely.

The Barrister Lord Carlisle made it clear that according to the European Convention on Human Rights, it is only acceptable to take another persons life in self defence or in a war, and that consequently assisted suicide constitutes homicide. The law protects people in the event of them feeling coerced and where they might have changed their mind without being able to make this clear.

Given the complexity of the arguments on both sides, it is to the credit of the proponents of the motion that they did not attempt to automatically ally opposition to assisted suicide with religious belief. Yet while the arguments against assisted suicide were expressed clearly, one emerged sensing that the subject was too large for a 90 minute discussion. The difficulty of being absolutely certain that no coercion was involved was not fully explored, nor the psychological effect on the doctor, or the fact that the doctors most happy to mediate in cases of assisted suicide are likely to be its supporters, and therefore potentially biased in favour of allowing a death to go ahead. Debbie Purdy vociferously objected to the suggestion from an audience member that the parameters of the public ‘support’ for assisted suicide are limited by the very fact that the severely disabled people most closely affected may well be too ill to speak up. Yet Lord Harries stated that in the House of Lords the disabled Peers are the strongest opponents.

At the start of the debate, 408 audience members voted in favour of the legalization of assisted suicide for the terminally ill with 119 abstainers and 110 against the motion. By the end, those in favour had dropped to 406 with those against rising to 208 and only 34 undecided.

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