17 July 2014, The Tablet

Opposing assisted suicide isn’t about imposing a narrow religious agenda

There are an awful lot of Aunt Sally arguments going around aimed at discrediting the case against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Lord Falconer is proposing the latest attempt to get some form of physician-assisted suicide accepted by Parliament after tomorrow's debate, and its cheerleaders in the media such as Polly Toynbee charge that opponents of this supposedly much-needed human rights reform are only against it because of their religious beliefs.

It needs to be stated clearly how and why this is not the case.

Although key religious leaders have expressed their opposition to the bill they are less concerned with their creed that with the common good.

Firstly the Falconer bill, much like its predecessors, raises concerns because of how it has been drafted. The bill seeks to allow for assisted suicide where the person wishing to kill themselves “is reasonably expected to die within six months”. This would include people who have degenerative conditions such as heart disease or Parkinson’s, who when they are frail or have other complications could be viewed by any sensible medical practitioner as being reasonably expected to die within six months but could go on to live for years. The bill would therefore be a much broader legalisation than is often understood. The bill also fails to specify or mandate any procedural safeguards to ensure that the request for assisted suicide has not been made by someone acting under duress or suffering from clinical depression.

Secondly there are serious concerns about how the legalisation of assisted suicide would undermine the value that society, and in particular our health and social care services, places on people who are no longer able to make contributions of economic value, who at the same time often cost a considerable sum of taxpayer funds.

Given the ageing population the financial pressures we face as a country, particularly with regard to the elderly, are only going to increase. We have already seen in recent care home scandals how the elderly and vulnerable can all too easily be treated with less dignity because they are considered to be on their way out.

The UK has the best examples of palliative care in the world, and many who work in this field are strongly influenced by their faith. But provision is expensive. It is not hard to imagine in a future where assisted suicide is packaged up in the language of “care options”, brought in on a misleading slogans of a “dignified death”, that there will be financial pressures to encourage one particular, and less costly, option. The increasing monetisation of the value of human life is a clear and depressingly likely consequence.

Think about the way we as a society try to support those who consider or attempt suicide – much resource is given to averting people taking their own lives. Why should this be any different for those considering suicide in this context? Consider also how this change would entail asking the medical profession to simultaneously be in the vocation of preserving life but also be charged with responsibility for administering lethal drugs to take it, and the likely cultural shift becomes all too apparent.

Ultimately, however, opposing the bandwagon that increasingly refers to some kind of suicide as the only dignified option is because we want to protect the dignity and demonstrate loving concern to those who are elderly and vulnerable.

All the major national disability groups are rigorously opposed to proposals to change the law. They most of all demonstrate that this is not about values that only appeal to people of faith but about universal ones, most essentially the equal dignity and value of all people.

Ed Rennie is Chairman of Labour Life

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