Analysis

Thursday 24 July 2014

Donal O’Mathuna: The suffering need compassion and care – not assisted suicide

Published 11/01/2013|05:00

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THE High Court ruling that upholds the current ban on assisted suicide is to be welcomed. The judges described Marie Fleming, who challenged the ban, as the most remarkable witness they had ever encountered. I suspect anyone watching Ms Fleming make her case wishes she could find relief from her suffering. While she argued that only assistance in suicide would help, the court concluded that there were important reasons for the current ban to continue.

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The compassionate response might seem to be one that permits assistance in dying when people clearly choose this. But in our desire to be compassionate, we must remember that hard cases make bad law. Sometimes what we want, what we believe we should be free to choose, is still not right. Suicide may not be illegal, but it is still a tragic end to someone's life. Assisted suicide is not right just because someone chooses it freely.

While we may sympathise with Ms Fleming's wishes, what she believes is good for her must we weighed against what is good for society. Assisted suicide is supported by claims that we have an absolute right to autonomy over our bodies. But we don't.

We restrict people's freedom to sell their bodies and their organs. We require people to wear seat belts in the privacy of their cars. The laws of our society seek to balance individual wishes and social goods.

The court ruled that there was plenty of evidence that the ban on assisted suicide was justified for the good of society. The judges examined evidence from countries where assisted suicide is legal and identified some abuse that they viewed as "deeply disturbing".

The Netherlands has strict guidelines for assisted dying, but in last September's medical journal, 'The Lancet', a study documented that hundreds of Dutch patients were put to death without having asked to die. In some cases, these deaths occurred without any discussion with patients or relatives.

The court raised concerns about the impact of assisted suicide on the vulnerable. When life seems meaningless, death may seem like the best option. But death is not a friendly partner, nor one that is easily restrained.

Prominent British ethicist Baroness Warnock stated recently that elderly people with dementia were "wasting the resources of the National Health Service" and the lives of their care-givers. In these days of cutting costs, we do not need to have anyone see death as a legitimate option to be provided to any patient.

Death with dignity is something we all want. Unfortunately, some people find indignity in death, hooked to all sorts of tubes and machines. Some find themselves alone, ignored and left in their own fluids. Allowing some people to help end others' lives will not fix anything.

Giving anyone permission to end another person's life would be dangerous. Legalising assisted suicide, even in strictly limited cases, is not the answer. We do not need a society where death is seen as our ally, but one where we promote people's dignified living while dying.

The court ruling is a challenging reminder for Irish society. If we will not help suffering people die, we must commit ourselves to helping everyone find reasons to live. Those in pain should have the best palliative care available.

Are we committing the resources hospice care requires? Those who feel like burdens should be shown that we want to help. Are we caring for those who need assistance in living? Those facing death must be reassured that we will not abandon them. Are we taking the time to be with our ageing relatives and neighbours?

Our lives are gifts, whether viewed as coming from God or from society. We live today because others have nurtured, supported and provided for us. This case challenges us not to be the hands that bring death, but to hold one another's hands as death arrives. That is how we promote dignity in dying.

Dr Donal O'Mathuna is a senior lecturer in ethics at DCU

Irish Independent

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