We need a massive expansion of palliative care rather than investing in death

We need a massive expansion of palliative care rather than investing in death A patient is pictured chatting with a sister at a Dominican-run facility in New York that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer in financial need. Photo: CNS
The View

Campaigns to make euthanasia/assisted suicide legal are underway in both England and Wales, and here in Ireland. The most recent bill was before the House of Lords on Friday. We had just three minutes each to make the case against the bill…a challenge!

That was very little time in which to contemplate the grave issues involved in introducing euthanasia/assisted suicide. It meant that I felt that I had to focus on the risks for those who most need to be kept safe in this context. As legislators, we have a duty to safeguard the public good as best we can, to legislate in the public interest, taking into account the needs not only of the strong and eloquent but also the weak and vulnerable, who have come to believe, perhaps, that their lives have no value because that is what so much of society tells them if they are sick, or ageing, or even disabled; if their ongoing existence is eating up the money they have faithfully saved to leave to those they love, or if they need care and are afraid of becoming a burden on those who care for them, or for many other reasons. The bill does not provide the safeguards and protections they need from those who would encourage them to opt for assisted death.

2020 report

A 2020 report from Oregon revealed that 53% of patients requested lethal drugs because they feared becoming a burden on those whom they loved, who cared for them. There is an assumption among those who support assisted death, that doctors will do the dreadful work of facilitating and assisting suicides. However, another 2020 survey showed that the majority of those licensed to practice medicine, who are closest to terminally-ill and dying patients, do not support legislation on assisted suicide and will not participate in it.

For that reason, I said, the bill must be rejected.

Before these matters are raised again in Parliament and in the Dáil, it may be useful to reflect a little more deeply on the spiritual, religious and ethical issues involved. As Catholics we believe that life is sacred and that it is God given – that before we even existed, we were loved by God, created for a purpose which is unique to each of us. As Cardinal Newman put it, we may never know what that purpose is in this life. However, we will undoubtedly know it in the next. As we walk through life, sometimes stumbling, sometimes lost in the darkness, sometimes enfolded in terror, we may encounter someone who, by some simple act of kindness, some great generosity of soul, or some professional act whether it be medical, legal or other, may cast light on our darkness, ease our pain or diminish our terror. We are told by Jesus, that “I am with you always”; in faith we believe that God will love us and care for us to the end of our lives. I watched a friend of mine die some years ago from cancer – a warm, compassionate, lively, very fit and young priest. His dying was lengthy and there were times for him which I know were very bad, but he really wanted to live, to carry on his priestly work, to be there for people in their joy and in their pain. His dying, at the end was peaceful, but it was profoundly hard for those who loved him to lose him.

God lives in us

The reality is that every death in some way diminishes us. We are enriched, enabled and encouraged by our good and positive encounters with others, which make us a better, even greater, person because we learn from them and perhaps above all, because God lives in each of us, and therefore as we touch each other’s lives, so we are touched by the hand of God in ways we may not immediately realise.

So it is that when someone we love, or someone we know dies, we grieve their passing because they became in some way a part of us and that part of us has gone. That feeling of real physical heartache when someone dies is not an illusion. It is very real.

The arguments made by the promoters of assisted death are very resonant of the arguments used to promote, and ultimately to legislate for abortion – the language is the same. Those who want assisted death speak of the need for compassion and the right to autonomy.

This is the third time I have fought the passage of such a bill through Parliament”

Terrible stories are told of people lingering in unspeakable agony for long periods before death, watched with horror by those who love them. Such things happen. They should not. Among those with whom I work are colleagues, expert practitioners in palliative care. They tell me that this does not have to be the case, that there are not enough palliative care consultants, that people quite simply do not have access to the palliative care they need.

This is the third time I have fought the passage of such a bill through Parliament. One of the interesting things this time is that my massive postbag contains a disproportionate number of letters and emails from senior clinicians of all kinds: anaesthetists, oncologists, specialists in palliative care, surgeons, GPs – and they all make the same request: please do not do this.

The other large proportion of letters reflect the feelings of an 80-year-old lady who wrote and told me that she was terrified of the bill and begged me to try and stop it. She told me that it would change the whole approach to dying. Her fears are repeated by so many others. At present we have a system which is predicated upon care which should include appropriate pain control. This is possible. What is necessary to achieve it, is a massive expansion of publicly funded hospice and palliative care systems, rather than investing in death.

The second concern of those who promote assisted dying is ‘autonomy’. The argument is that “it is my body and I have the right to choose when I die”. In law such a right now exists because suicide is no longer a crime. What does not exist is the right for another person to enable us to kill ourselves, or to kill us. There are very cogent and compelling reasons relating to the value which we place on human life and the need to provide safety for the vulnerable, why such a right does not exist.

The reality is that although I may claim autonomy over my body and, it is true that, in law, I could choose to terminate my life, it is not as simple as that. We have a duty to protect our fellow human beings and to provide proper care. We are blessed in our living and we have to strive to make life the best it can possibly be for everyone. There is beauty and goodness in each life no matter how limited the circumstances may become, and we know that the Spirit of God lives in each of us until God takes us home in his own time, when all our work is done.