01 July 2015, The Tablet

What happens when you euthanase the mentally ill

by Sheila Hollins

Euthanasia was legalised in Belgium in 2002 for terminally ill patients. But Wim Distelmans, the chairman of the Federal Euthanasia Commission, recently reported that between 2 and 3 per cent of the 1,924 people who died last year by euthanasia were psychiatric patients. Bipolar disorder was the majority diagnosis.

counsellingIn December 2013 Baroness (Elizabeth) Butler-Sloss, a former President of the Family Division of the High Court, warned that laws are like nation states in that they are more secure when their boundaries rest on natural frontiers. The law that we have now in Britain, she wrote, rests on just such a frontier – on the principle that we do not involve ourselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of other people. Once we start making exceptions to that principle, based on arbitrary criteria such as terminal illness or unbearable suffering, the boundary of the law becomes just a line in the sand – easily crossed and hard to defend against encroachment.

That is what we are now looking at in Belgium. A growing number of patients with mental illness are being offered euthanasia. It is what happens when a law is passed with boundaries that are purely arbitrary. And it is what we could expect to see if we were foolish enough to license doctors to supply lethal drugs to terminally ill people in Britain; attempts to change the boundaries would soon follow.

In the US, Oregon's assisted suicide law was passed for people who are terminally ill and have less than six months to live. And now we are seeing, contrary to all assurances, the first attempt to relax the terms of Oregon's law – to change the six-months-to-live condition to 12 months.

Could it happen here? Well, look at the report of Lord Falconer's so-called commission on assisted dying. His “commission” wondered whether people who were disabled but not terminally ill should be offered assistance with suicide. It decided not “at this point in time”. It's little wonder that many disabled people are worried.

These “assisted dying” laws with their arbitrary boundaries, whether in Belgium or Oregon, have within themselves the seeds of their own extension. If the relief of suffering is the aim, why should assisted suicide be offered to people who are expected to die shortly of natural causes but withheld from others who may have years of distress to endure? Or to people who are suffering from physiological conditions but not to others with mental illnesses?

Apart from any other objections to them (and there are enough of those), the proposals we are seeing for “assisted dying” have not been thought through and do not make logical sense. As in Belgium, proposals to change the law in the UK would put mentally ill people at risk.

They challenge our societal attitude towards suicide, which we currently do everything we can to prevent, and our efforts to relieve the suffering and despair of people with suicidal thoughts.

In my opinion as a psychiatrist, such a law would seriously threaten the trust that patients with any serious illness, perhaps especially a mental illness, needs to have in their doctor.

Professor (Baroness) Sheila Hollins is emeritus professor of psychiatry of disability at St George’s, University of London, and a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists

What do you think?


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User comments (4)

Comment by: Aloysius Beebwa
Posted: 05/07/2015 19:17:32

I agree totally with the position of Baroness Hollins. I would not want to see someone deciding the definitive end of another person. Allowing laws like this is opening a can of worms! I think that, especially in these fluid times when (young) men and women in parts of the world are brainwashed to think that can they end their lives in God's cause, thus increasingly putting lives of many others at risk, because of different kinds of extremism ideologies, we should clearly uphold the dignity of each human person as much as possible. We should think very carefully about what we enact as law, and i think it great that Pope Francis reminds us that we are not God! We are only stewards, mandated to nourish, nurture and care for God's creation.
Best wishes,

Comment by: Gallibus
Posted: 03/07/2015 10:47:14

What with doctors becoming more and more the dispensing agents for the drug manufacturers, and now with licence to kill, they will soon be more feared than the disease.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 02/07/2015 19:26:21

Well said Professor Hollins.
As my parish priest said, we should be caring for the ill not killing them.

Comment by: sara_tms_again
Posted: 01/07/2015 14:29:55

Thanks for this. The Church is now the main organisation holding the line on this, and it's vital that we continue to do so. We must continue to be advocates for the worth of all human lives, even and especially when people doubt their own worth.

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