Saturday 24 August 2019

Michael Kelly: 'People who fought for contraception, divorce and abortion may well see euthanasia as the next step'

Stock Photo: PA
Stock Photo: PA
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

When I studied metaphysics at university, the larger-than-life professor had a running gag about the widely held perception that philosophy is, well, useless.

He'd begin the lecture, then ostentatiously interrupt himself to instruct a student near the back of the theatre to ensure that the doors were fully closed.

"Otherwise," he'd laugh, "it'll confirm the worst suspicions of the science students about philosophy!" He'd then go on to enthral us with seemingly abstract discussions about being, knowing and identity and poke holes in the hapless arguments of undergrads.

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It was a great training ground, and every assumption, claim and belief would be rigidly interrogated and subject to scrutiny. One of my abiding lessons of that time was the fundamental metaphysical law that, all else being equal, it's better to be than not to be.

At first glance, this seems like a fairly uncontroversial statement.

But what about when one considers quality of life? What about those who feel that they have had enough of living? Should people be allowed to end their lives at a time of their own choosing?

Lived experience has an uncanny ability to take abstract ideas and create real-world dilemmas out of them.

These are questions that Ireland will increasingly have to grapple with. An ageing population will inevitably mean more chronic illnesses. It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to know that euthanasia and assisted suicide will, sooner rather than later, become the next big moral battleground. It's not implausible that people who fought for the right to contraception, divorce and abortion may well see choosing how and when they die as a natural step.

Currently, euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in Ireland and it is a crime to help someone to end their own life.

But, at least in some quarters, there is a push for change. Waterford-based TD John Halligan introduced legislation in 2015 in a bid to permit assisted dying, but his elevation to the post of Minister of State means he cannot progress the push while a member of the Government.

That won't stymie the debate. The Oireachtas Justice Committee last summer forwarded a report on the issue to both the Department of Health and the Department of Justice.

Revealing more than a little sympathy with a change in the law, the report used the highly emotive term "the right to die with dignity" rather than the factual and neutral euthanasia or assisted dying.

Currently, only a handful of countries permit doctors to kill their patients. The Netherlands was the first to cross this particular Rubicon. It legalised euthanasia in 2002 for people who the doctor judges to be experiencing unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement.

Children as young as 12 are entitled to have their request to be killed considered. Parental consent is required up to 15, but parents have no veto once their child has reached age 16.

Latest statistics from the Netherlands show that more than 25pc of deaths in the country are now induced. In 2017, there were 6,600 cases of euthanasia, there were 900 suicides and some 32,000 people died through a practice called palliative sedation.

Euthanasia legislation began from a desire to deal with the most heartbreaking of cases. But, over time the definition of unbearable suffering was loosened.

In 2017, two Dutch government ministers revealed plans for a 'completed life' bill that would give anyone over 70 years of age the right to receive a lethal poison, cutting the doctor out of the equation completely.

The proposal was eventually withdrawn, but many expect it to re-emerge in one form or another.

Campaigners for euthanasia and assisted dying frequently dismiss arguments about a 'slippery slope' where it becomes more and more common.

But, Holland is a case in point. The law has expanded to include people who might otherwise live for many years, from patients with dementia to mentally ill young people.

Last year, Dutch doctors euthanised a 29-year-old woman who was suffering from depression. Her bouts of depression, she argued, made her life intolerable.

What kind of message does that send to people living with depression and mental ill-health?

How can anyone talk about turning the tide on suicide and prioritising resources for people experiencing suicidal ideation while accepting that euthanasia is an answer to depression?

In Belgium, which has also gone down the euthanasia road, deaf twins chose to die because they "had nothing to live for" after learning they would soon become blind. Yet, deaf and blind people live very fulfilled lives, despite the challenges.

Many proponents of euthanasia and assisted dying support the procedures out of a sense of compassion and not wanting to see people suffer unnecessarily.

But, as the continental example shows, it creeps and creeps until it becomes a lifestyle choice.

An article in the 'Guardian' this week claimed that almost everyone in The Netherlands knows someone who has died by euthanasia.

It's an appalling vista and inevitably puts pressure on people to end their lives. This could well be exacerbated as the growing older population feel the strain of limited health resources.

In Britain, Baroness Warnock - a prominent campaigner for euthanasia - provoked controversy when she claimed that pensioners in mental decline as a result of dementia are "wasting people's lives" because of the care they require and should be allowed to opt for euthanasia even if they are not in pain.

Where it is introduced, assisted dying and euthanasia cheapen life. What starts off rare soon becomes more and more common.

No one wants anyone to suffer, that's why excellent palliative care, pain relief and funding for hospice care must be top of the agenda.

We should learn the painful lesson from the continent and realise that world-class end-of-life care should be the priority, rather than snuffing out the lives of the inconvenient and bothersome.

Irish Independent

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