The euthanasia lobby gains momentum; doctors are becoming cavalier about their desire to terminate the lives of people they deem to occupy a Persistent Vegetative State. In the Netherlands, where assisted suicide is legal, the system has been abused. Whatever the good – and bad – intentions of the euthanasia lobby, we must always choose life over death, writes A.P. Schrader.
Who can fail to have been moved by the plight of the sister of a severely brain-damaged woman – known only as ‘M’ – who is currently fighting a case at the Court of Protection to have her sister’s feeding tubes withdrawn. M is 51 years old and has been living in a care home in the north of England since suffered brain damage in 2003 after a viral infection. She occupies, what her doctors are calling, “a minimally conscious state” and her understandably tormented sister is adamant that “she would not have wanted to live a life totally dependent on others.”
This is – as are all such cases – very difficult to look at dispassionately. Clearly there is a woman involved here who is undoubtedly suffering. Her family are clearly motivated by love and compassion. Nevertheless, one has to disagree with their decision to seek an end to her life.
The primary cause for concern is that M’s condition is not terminal. She is not in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) and that fact should weigh heavily on the Court. It is important to note that, initially, M’s doctors had thought that said she was indeed in a PVS. They then changed their minds after it became clear she was ‘aware’, and is now described by the aforementioned term “minimally conscious”. This somewhat prosaic term belies the fact that, while M cannot speak, care staff believe it would be possible for her to communicate by blinking.
I am reminded of the case of Charlotte Wyatt back in 2003. Baby Charlotte was born three months premature, weighing just 1lb. She suffered horrendous brain, lung and kidney damage. Medical staff treating her said she was in constant pain and had no prospect of developing normally or living an independent life and they fought a furious court battle to be allowed to let the child die.
Her parents fought against the medical staff and won. Charlotte will celebrate her 8th birthday in October. This is a child the medical profession said had a “one per cent chance of surviving and getting better”. Just as M’s doctors initially said she was in a PVS and then upgraded this to “minimally conscious”, Charlotte’s doctors started by saying she only had 1% chance of survival and she went on to confound them all (and the courts, who initially granted the hospital permission not to resuscitate her). Where human life is concerned, it turns out 1% is more than enough.
While not wishing to detract from the undeniable difficulty of M’s situation or the obvious agony and heartache being suffered by those who love and care for her, we should nevertheless be very wary indeed in conceding a principle that says some lives are worth saving while others are not. No matter how carefully we qualify this, there is a very real risk that a culture will take root that decisions of life and death should be decided on the basis of subjective assessments of a person’s perceived “quality of life”. This is an extremely dangerous way of thinking and would leave our disabled and elderly citizens particularly at risk of such subjective judgements.
I have no doubt that M’s sister knows her M’s mind well. I dare say she is correct when she says that M would “not have wanted to live like this”. Who would? The fact is, however, that she is living like this and she is alive and the idea of doctors or nurses starving their patients to death, much less playing an active role in ending their lives, is something that should make all of us pause.
Both assisted suicide and full-blown euthanasia would, if they were ever made legal, irrevocably alter our attitude to life – and to the sanctity of life in particular – for ever. The example of the Netherlands is chilling. Since the Dutch Parliament legalised euthanasia, one of the immediate effect was that it fundamentally changed the relationship between doctors and patients. Thousands of Dutchmen now carry documents, essentially pleading with their doctors not to kill them or let them starve to death if they should happen to fall ill – a worrying state of affairs for a supposedly civilised nation.
Another unintended consequence of the decision of the Staten-Generaal has been a distinct decline in availability and quality of palliative medicine in the Netherlands. Far less effort is now made to keep elderly Dutch people alive and comfortable. Meanwhile, it has become practically a rule of thumb that no attempt should be made to revive Dutch babies born after only twenty-three to twenty-four weeks gestation – despite medical science now offering extremely good chance of survival in more and more of these cases.
The Dutch law was framed with noble intent as do those who wish to institute a similar law in Britain. All the same, such a law would have – and has had in the Netherlands – the effect of irrevocably devaluing human life. It must also necessarily place the medical profession in the most invidious position. Assisted suicide or euthanasia would fundamentally conflict with the Hippocratic Oath. We really should keep this simple and hold fast to the clearly understood principle that the first duty of medical professionals is ‘do no harm’ and to preserve life at all costs. If you tamper with that, then the whole principle on which medical care has rested since Ancient Grecian times begins to unravel.
There should be a simple principle here. If there is a dispute between Life and Death then, when in doubt, opt for Life.
To read A.P. Schrader’s other articles visit A.P Schrader’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast and A.P. Schrader.