It’s the caring thing to do ⎼ life and death in the NHS

Over the last few months, pressure in the media for support of assisted suicide has been gathering momentum.   A recent article in The Times by Letters Editor Stephen Bleach, for example, claims overwhelming and growing support from readers, who have witnessed first-hand the long drawn out and agonised death of a loved one (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/our-readers-back-compassion-on-new-assisted-dying-rules-5ngsc0zg7).

It comes, therefore, as something of a relief that the leaders of different faith groups, including Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the Anglican Communion, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England, and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, leader of the United Hebrew Congregations in the Commonwealth, joined to speak out against Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill ahead of its debate in the House of Lords.  All three affirmed the sanctity of life as the gift of God, combined with the imperative that as a society we care for the vulnerable and those at the end of life.  All three highlighted the very real risks and dangers posed by the Meacher Bill, stating clearly that proposed safeguards were inadequate.

Despite strong support for the Bill ⎼ including, unexpectedly, from a former member of General Synod, Lord (Frank) Field, himself now in the latter stages of terminal illness – a determined opposition was mounted.  As result, and clearly fearing defeat, Baroness Meacher chose not to take the Bill to a vote.  This was undeniably something of a victory.  Nevertheless, the Bill now moves to committee stage, with the remote possibility of its being given time for debate in the House of Commons (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/249373/english-assisted-suicide-bill-not-put-to-vote-in-house-of-lordshttps://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2021/october-2021/lords-debates-assisted-dying-bill-at-second-reading/).

Though on this occasion unsuccessful, proponents for assisted suicide will undoubtedly keep on!   However, what is highly pertinent to the debate, albeit largely overlooked, is the large number of elderly and vulnerable people who at the moment find themselves admitted to hospital for relatively trivial and easily treatable conditions and who then, without consultation, are put on what are euphemistically called ‘end of life care plans’.   These pernicious ‘plans’ are, for all practical purposes, a design for bringing about death, food and hydration being routinely withdrawn ⎼ with inevitable consequences – in the supposedly ‘best interests’ of the patient.

It may be remembered that in 2013 the infamous Liverpool Care Pathway, rightly condemned for its often inappropriate and premature assessment of imminent death, was withdrawn, following complaints from bereaved relatives that patients had been inappropriately deprived of food and hydration, with all forms of treatment denied, apart from the prescription of sedatives that rendered them comatose and served to hasten death.  Sadly, though the branding has now changed, this practice continues unabated.

VfJUK recently put out a call for evidence of people’s experiences of end of life care since 2013.   A big thank you to all those who responded.  We have received a large number of testimonies – some, it has to be admitted, both heartbreaking and shocking.  As result, we are now compiling a report to put before members of Parliament and of the House of Lords.   We shall also, once completed, make it available on our website.

Not only must this pernicious and evil practice, that allows doctors to determine who is and is not worthy of receiving treatment, be ended, but the evidence of existing practice must be weighed in the debate over whether or not to legalize physician assisted death.

After all, if people are already being put prematurely on a ‘treatment package’ whose only outcome is death, what safeguards will remain for anyone going into hospital when, as a nation, we officially approve helping the afflicted to die?

In jurisdictions where medically assisted dying is already legalized, claims that it will be confined to the terminally ill with less than six months to live have already been exposed as untrue.  In Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, where the practice has been legal since 2002, 47% of all cases are now for non-terminal conditions, including such things as depression, or simply being ‘tired of life’ (https://angelusnews.com/news/life-family/belgium-and-the-netherlands-see-rapid-rise-in-euthanasia-and-assisted-suicide-cases/).

The practice is also becoming more generally widespread.  In the Netherlands, for instance, the rate has more than tripled since its legalisation (https://www.alliancevita.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/euthanasia-in-the-netherlands.pdf), while there is growing concern that many such deaths are not being reported (https://spcare.bmj.com/content/early/2021/09/26/bmjspcare-2020-002573).  It has even been said, under this regime, that old age is increasingly being regarded as a ‘health condition’, for which the only effective treatment is death.

This is worrying in the extreme.  If doctors and medical staff in the UK are already taking life and death decisions, based on their subjective assessment of an individual’s quality of, and entitlement to, life ⎼ at a time when assisted dying remains prohibited under law ⎼ how much worse will the situation become, if and when the practice becomes legalised?  No one going into hospital – at whatever age, if they have the misfortune to suffer from a pre-existing condition that makes them vulnerable ⎼ will be safe from sentence of death.

To end life is not a decision that should ever lie with doctors ⎼ who, after all, are there to treat and care for the sick, and not regulate the population as they see fit.   As a matter of urgency, and to facilitate public trust, there must be immediate inquiry into how the NHS approaches end of life care.

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