The question of whether it is ever right to assist someone to take their own life has surfaced recently with two highly publicised cases.First, there was Frances Inglis, who injected her 22 year old severely disabled son, Tom, with heroin to bring his suffering to an end. He had been severely brain damaged after a road accident in 2007. His mother argued he was locked into
“a living hell” with no hope of recovery.Inglis, who had tried before to kill her son, insisted on her innocence because she had killed her son with love in her heart, not malice. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life, with a recommendation to serve nine years.
Then came the case of Kathleen Gilderdale who helped her 31 year old daughter, Lynn, end her own life by handing her morphine to inject.When the drugs were not enough, Gilderdale searched the house for more tablets, which she crushed and gave her daughter through a feeding tube in her nose.She then administered three syringes of air through an intravenous catheter with the intention of causing fatal air bubbles in her bloodstream. The jury found Gilderdale not guilty of attempted murder and she was given a a 12-month conditional discharge for the offence of assisted suicide. The area of assisted suicide has been furiously debated in Britain due mainly to some of the high profile cases paraded before the courts. It has been less of an issue in Ireland, where possibly the stronger influence of the Catholic Church, with its prohibition against assisted suicide has held sway. There seems little doubt though that it is only a matter of time before this debate reaches Ireland.The water in Britain has been further muddied by a succession of individuals going to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland, where drugs are administered to help them die. Notable recent cases include, conductor Sir Edward Downes, 85, who travelled last summer to Dignitas to die together with his wife Joan, 74, who had terminal liver and pancreatic cancer. He was virtually blind and increasingly deaf, but not himself terminally ill. Then there was Daniel James, a 23-year-old rugby player, paralysed during a training accident, who was helped to die. Some 1032 people have been helped to take their own lives at Dignitas since 1998.The most recent development came last September when the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) brought forward draft guidelines regarding prosecution in assisted dying cases. The guidelines followed a Law Lords ruling in favour of Debby Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, and wanted clarified under what circumstances people would be prosecuted for helping someone die. She was concerned for the fate of her husband.The guideliines comprise a checklist of factors to be taken into account in each case – 16 in favour of prosecution and 13 against. "The policy makes a distinction between, on the one hand, relatives, close family members, and friends, who, as a one-off and on a compassionate basis, may assist in a suicide, and on the other hand those that, on an ongoing basis, provide either a service or a business,” said Keir Starmer, the DPP. " Suspects would be less likely to face charges if the "victim" had a "clear, settled and informed wish" to take their life, which they had "indicated unequivocally" and in person.”
The interim guidelines have been out to consultation with the government set to legislate on the position in the spring.
The opposition to changes in the law on assisted dying is led by the Catholic Church. Its concerns revolve mainly around weakening of the law resulting in the more vulnerable and those deemed of less value being being helped to die.
As Archbishop Peter Smith Smith, chairman of the Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship at the Bishops Conference of England and Wales,.says with a rapidly ageing population over the next 20 years, pressures on people to die are likely to increase. "We need to try in particular to ensure that there is no suggestion that certain classes of people have lives that are less worth living or less deserving of the full protection of the law. From a moral perspective all are equal in dignity and the protection of the lives of citizens, especially the most vulnerable, has to remain the foundation of the law,” said Archbishop Smith. "Moreover, there are very serious concerns not only from a moral point of view, but also in respect of public safety. There is a danger of subtle pressure being felt by those who are vulnerable that they are unwanted or a burden to others – those with disabilities and chronic illness especially.”
There are medical concerns too, with the pressure of scarcity of resources being a factor taken into account in making such decisions. Already, many elderly people are scared to go into hosptial for fear of not re-emerging.
The Church’s sanctity of life argument also carries much weight.
If the individual whose life is at stake has followed a reasoned route to a decision that they want to die then that is one thing but how about in the case of say a dementia sufferer. No one knows what the quality of life is of a person in that situation. They could be in such a world of their own, devoid of all responsibility that life is enjoyable. A third party, whether medical or family, just does not know.
The whole area of assisted suicide is very difficult to judge. The moves away from prosecuting those acting for the right reasons to help end the life of a loved one who is clearly suffering are understandable. Locking people up for murder in such circumstances achives little. The argument of those like the Church holds equal weight. It is a short step from assisted dying to euthanasia and beyond to simply getting rid of people not deemed to be “of value” to society. The government is certainly going to have to think very carefully before it decides which path to follow over the coming months.