Thursday 7 May 2009

Suicide devalues the lives of the terminally-ill

Chris Woodhead (pictured), the former chief schools' inspector, has said that he plans to commit suicide at some point during the progression of his motor neurone disease (MND). He has said the dependency and loss of control entailed by the disease is intolerable and humilitating. He believes his life will cease to be worth living within a few years.

The Daily Mail report says:
[Mr Woodhead] said that he 'might need help to die' but that he was determined not to involve his wife or daughter Tamsin, because they could be jailed for up to 14 years if they assisted his suicide. Referring to the unsuccessful legal battle fought by fellow MND sufferer Diane Pretty to allow her husband to help her die, Mr Woodhead added: 'I don't believe that politicians will have the courage to alter the law.'
I accept, of course, that MND is a particularly severe and frightening illness, and Mr Woodhead has my heartfelt sympathy. But the consequences of legalising assisted suicide or euthanasia would be even more severe and frightening, and not just for people with MND. For example, when assisted suicide was legalised briefly in the Northern Territory, Australia, aborginals feared going to doctors or hospitals for fear of being killed.

Allowing assisted suicide would undermine protection for everyone, both the vulnerable and those of us not currently vulnerable, by lessening the value of human life. Assisted suicide sends a message to the terminally ill that caring for them is a waste of time, that their lives are no longer worth living and that they are better off dead.

The late Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"):
"[A]ny State which made such a request legitimate and authorized it to be carried out would be legalizing a case of suicide-murder, contrary to the fundamental principles of absolute respect for life and of the protection of every innocent life. In this way the State contributes to lessening respect for life and opens the door to ways of acting which are destructive of trust in relations between people." (paragragh 72) (my emphasis)
Many people, including patients themselves, often don't know that palliative care is highly successful in alleviating the symptoms of MND. Mr Woodhead's fears about his quality of life and the effect on his family can be properly addressed with correct medical advice and full personal support. Here are some points from "The Case of Diane Pretty" by Alison Davis of No Less Human (NLH).
  • The claim by the pro-euthanasia lobby in such cases that people with MND inevitably die by choking or suffocation is completely untrue.
  • George Levvy, chief executive of Motor Neurone Disease Society, has said: "This is not the case. The majority of people with MND die from respiratory failure and the death is usually very peaceful and usually when the person is asleep. With the correct palliative care it is very rare for someone to die from choking."
  • Dr. Sykes, a hospice doctor, with experience of over 300 MND patients has stated that he does not know of a single patient who choked to death.
  • Dr. Rysz Bietzk, Head of Medical Services at the Pasque hospice, who actually cared for Diane Pretty during the last few days of her life, said “Diane died peacefully … choking or suffocation was never an issue for her.”
  • 80% of people with MND at St. Christopher’s Hospice who reported breathlessness as a problem responded well to the use of morphine and other drugs.
  • Recently there have been advances in the use of portable ventilators for people with MND, which have proved highly effective.
  • The problem of communication can nowadays be overcome with computerised speech .(Many readers will have heard on TV or radio the computerised “voice” of Professor Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist who has MND.)
  • Overcoming the problem with swallowing and the resulting inability to take in food and drink can be easily and discreetly done by means of a gastrostomy tube – a tube leading directly into the stomach, through which food and water can be given.
  • Legalising assisted suicide would divert resources from the hospice movement, which aims to achieve peaceful deaths for all, to providing death as a solution to the challenges illness and disability pose.