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Meanwhile, further down the slippery slope

11 July 2014

Assisted dying: The experience in Europe does not fill Jonathan Luxmoore with confidence


Last rights: hospice care is under threat from funding cuts

Last rights: hospice care is under threat from funding cuts

LORD FALCONER's Assisted Dying Bill - the fourth in a decade - would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients who are judged to have less than six months to live. I believe that Christians should treat the legislation with caution.

Even with its safeguards, the Bill is firmly opposed by the British Medical Association, which predicts that it will place society "on a slippery slope with undesirable consequences". Experience from around Europe suggests that this is the case. 

ASSISTED dying and voluntary euthanasia have been legal for more than a decade in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and are deemed "non-punishable" in Switzerland. Poll data suggest that most people across the Continent now favour some form of euthanasia law if backed with appropriate rules. But the issue has pitted public opinion against many local Churches.

In February, when Belgian MPs voted to make their country the world's first to allow doctor-assisted killing of small children, the amendment was opposed in an unprecedented show of unanimity by all main faith groups, who warned that it risked "further destroying the links existing in society" and "making a banality of a grave reality".

Euthanasia deaths are increasing by 27 per cent annually in Belgium in any case: 1816 were officially registered in 2013, according to the latest data from the Health Ministry. Reasons given have included blindness, anorexia, and botched operations, helped by ambiguous legal provisions that say doctors must be "consulted", but need not agree.

The real figure may be higher. Research published in the British Medical Journal in October 2010 said that almost half of euthanasia deaths in the Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium were unreported, and at least a third were occurring without the consent of patients.

More recent studies, such as ones in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that lethal doses are also routinely administered by nurses in Belgian hospitals, in violation of the 2002 law, and often under the guise of palliative care.

The 16-member Euthanasia Control and Evaluation Commission in Belgium has been co-chaired since its creation by a leading euthanasia doctor, Wim Distelmans. To date, the Commission has not investigated a single euthanasia death.

CALLS to extend existing laws are being heard in neighbouring countries, as death by euthanasia becomes more widespread.

In Switzerland, where assisted suicide and euthanasia are punishable under Article 115 of the penal code "only if the motive is selfish", large profits have been made by the Dignitas organisation, based in Zurich, which offers termination to clients from abroad.

In the Netherlands, where children as young as 12 can officially request help in dying, euthanasia deaths increased by 64 per cent in the five years up to 2010. Under a 2004 Groningen Protocol, new born babies with conditions such as spina bifida can be killed because of "their perceived future suffering, or that of their parents".

Dutch newspapers say that eu-thanasia is already part of the na-tional culture, helped by prominent personalities who have publicly chosen it, and new rituals such as a "last supper" before a lethal injection. Two years ago, mobile euthanasia clinics began killing people by lethal injection at home, free of charge.

EUTHANASIA and assisted dying are not in the competence of the European Union, whose 1957 Treaty on Functioning encourages co- operation in health matters, but re-spects the responsibility of member-states for "the organisation and delivery of health services and medical care".

Yet pressure to standardise policies and procedures has grown in areas such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Several judgments by the European Court of Human Rights have encouraged calls for a Europe-wide right to assisted suicide under privacy clauses in the 1950 European Convention.

In Germany, where a monument is planned in Berlin to 200,000 victims of a wartime Nazi euthanasia programme against the mentally and physically disabled, efforts are being made to clarify the law after the Federal Court of Justice acquitted a woman in 2010 who had cut off her sick mother's life support in hospital.

In Spain, euthanasia legislation by the former Socialist government was narrowly voted down in 2007 and 2011. In France, "medicalised assistance in ending life with dignity" was a 2012 election pledge by the Socialist President, François Hollande. A draft law, published a month after his victory, is to be debated this year.

"We are all worried," the French Roman Catholic daily La Croix commented recently. "We want a society that allows everyone to pass through situations of vulnerability without being branded useless or costly, or having their life's value called in question. . ."

RESPONDING to last February's child-euthanasia amendment in Belgium, which requires terminally ill infants to have made "repeated requests to die", the country's Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference said that the prohibition of killing was "the foundation of all human society".

Yet abuse and neglect of the elderly are already widespread in Europe, the Bishops argue. The record suggests that laws allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide will be extended beyond their original target group, helped by media hype and manipulated opinion polls.

"This new law opens the door wide to the further extension of euthanasia to disabled persons, people with dementia, the mentally ill, and those merely tired of life," the Belgian bishops said. "We insist everything is done instead to combat pain and suffering to the maximum, and that all professionals and volunteers accompanying the sick and suffering gain optimal support."

In Britain, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have promised MPs a free vote when Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill reaches the Commons, where support for the measure appears to be growing.

The pressure group Dignity in Dying argues that the Bill will cover only "adults with mental capacity", and will not allow doctors to kill patients themselves or legalise assisted suicide for those not dying.

The empirical record suggests that such assurances are unreliable, and should be treated carefully when it comes to evaluating this legislation.

Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer who reports from Poland and Oxford.

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