Q & A on Assisted Suicide

On Friday 11th September 2015 the House of Commons will be debating and voting on a Private Member’s Bill to legalise assisted suicide.  Below you will find some answers to frequently asked questions about the law and ethics of assisting suicide in the light of Catholic teaching.

What will the Bill do?
The Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill is a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Rob Marris MP.   It would ‘enable competent adults who are terminally ill to choose to be provided with medically supervised assistance to end their own life’. That means it would licence doctors to supply lethal drugs to terminally ill patients to enable them to commit suicide.

What's the law on this now?
Suicide was decriminalised in British law in 1961 because it was recognised that people attempting to commit suicide needed care, support and often medical treatment because of depression, rather than a criminal conviction. The serious tragedy of suicide meant that it remained against the law to ‘encourage or assist’ another person’s suicide or attempted suicide. 

In 2010 the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued guidance about the factors that are taken into account in deciding whether to prosecute this offence.  For example, prosecution is more likely if there is evidence of pressure having been brought to bear, or the assister had stood to gain from the suicide, or there was a duty of care for the person concerned. It is less likely if the assistance was given reluctantly and was ‘wholly motivated by compassion’.  The law, which protects vulnerable people, is able to deter assisting suicide and, if necessary to deal with malicious assistance with suicide, while also having discretion not to press charges in tragic cases.

Why shouldn't it be legal to assist suicide if the person wishing to die is old or disabled or ill?
Every person’s life is equally worthy of respect and protection.  Even if someone loses sight of the dignity and value of their life (whether through pain, suffering or loneliness), they remain valuable in themselves and a member of the human family. They deserve care, support and sometimes medical treatment for depression, not assistance with suicide.  Neither the criminal law nor the DPP guidance distinguishes between suicide of young people who are physically-well and of someone who is old, disabled or ill.  Indeed, as a society we rightly go to great lengths to prevent each and every suicide.  In the words of the World Health Organisation, ‘every single life lost to suicide is one too many’.

How can we stand by while people die in pain?  Don’t we have a duty to do something?
We do have a duty to do something.  The United Kingdom was a pioneer in the hospice movement and the development of palliative care but most people do not have access to a hospice. There is need for more resources to support improved palliative and end of life care. Most hospitals focus on curing people and sometimes ‘could do better’ when it comes to care of the dying. Over 95% of pain can be controlled with specialist help and as a last resort a person could at least be comfortably sedated. 

What does the Church say about the value and dignity of dying people?
In a message addressed to Catholics in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, Pope Francis said, ‘Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live for ever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect’.  The Church teaches that life is a gift from God and supports high quality care for the dying and protection for the weak and vulnerable. 

What does the medical profession have to say about physician assisted suicide?
The British Medical Association, and the Medical Royal Colleges are strongly opposed to legalising physician–assisted suicide.  A key principle of professional medical ethics, reflected in the criminal law, is that doctors should never intentionally shorten life.  This principle, which dates from the ancient, pre-Christian, Hippocratic Oath, can be found today in the General Medical Council’s statement about the duties of a doctor, and in the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Geneva: doctors must show ‘the utmost respect for human life’. 

Need life be preserved at all costs?
Doctors may withdraw futile or burdensome treatments, or respect a patient’s refusal of treatment, or give much needed palliative treatment even if they foresee that, as an unintended side-effect, death may come sooner.  In fact palliative drugs, properly administered, do not generally hasten death.  Palliative care focuses not on cure but on care and ‘intends neither to hasten nor to postpone death’.  It is no part of medicine to kill or to assist suicide but nor does it require doctors to preserve life at all costs. 

Wouldn't there be safeguards in any legalised system?
Once you concede a principle and cross a line in ethics and law, it is wishful thinking to imagine that bad consequences can be averted merely by qualifications, conditions, or procedures.  In the small number of jurisdictions where assisted suicide has been legalised or where it is not prosecuted under certain conditions (Holland, and a handful of states in the USA) there is ample evidence that the safeguards don't work.  For instance, some laws seek to restrict access to assisted suicide to terminally ill people with a specific prognosis.  But prognosis of terminal illness is fraught with difficulty: terminally ill people often live for much longer than the predictions they are given when they are diagnosed - occasionally they even recover.  Furthermore doctors often fail to spot clinical depression in people who would meet the legal requirements for assisted suicide.  Each year the numbers dying by assisted suicide increase and the ‘safeguards’ are taken less and less seriously.  For more information on this see the website of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre (www.bioethics.org.uk). 

What should I do if I am concerned about the dangers of assisted suicide?
If you are concerned about how legalising assisted suicide will put vulnerable people at risk, affect palliative care or encourage suicide please contact your local MP before the assisted Dying Bill is debated in the House of Commons on 11th September 2015.  If you have personal experiences to share with them please do. MPs listen to their constituents and will want to hear about your concerns. You can send an e-mail to your MP via the Catholic Bishops’ Conference website www.catholicnews.org.uk/assisted-suicide

This is a crucial opportunity to make your voice heard.

Dear Parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes,

The pupils of Our Lady of Lourdes School are seeking people in our local school and parish community to support us with our RE learning this half term about modern ‘Pentecost People’. We would be grateful if you were able to assist with this.

This half term, our whole school focus for our RE learning is based on Pentecost. The children have been learning about the recount of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit by exploring the scriptures, so that they can retell what happened.  Our topic moves forward to explore the question: What is a Pentecost Person? The children will be taught that, since the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke to those they met about the Good News, people who believe in God have continued to live their lives differently – to live remembering what Jesus taught and what he showed in his life. We will teach the children about people who have lived their lives differently, by first looking at the group of Pentecost people, who we read about in the Bible, such as: Peter, Paul and the Gospel writers. Then we will learn about people today who believe in God and try to live as God would want. These will be examples of modern ‘Pentecost People’.

In order for the teachers to teach about modern ‘Pentecost People’ and provide good real life examples for the children to learn from, we are looking for volunteers to provide us with this information. Therefore I am contacting a range of different believers (men, women, older, younger, ordained and lay) from our school and parish community to see if they are able to assist with our ‘data’ collection. We were hoping to interview people directly by asking various different questions. Please see here for the questions, in order to help the children achieve the level of attainment they are working towards. Obviously, we would not want to ask anyone anything without giving them time to prepare ideas and examples which you feel comfortable saying. 

If you feel you are able to help in any way by providing an example of a modern Pentecost Person, it would be greatly appreciated. We would need the information as soon as possible, within the next week (week beginning 04/05/15) or possible week after (week beginning 11/05/15). There are various ways you could help us. Firstly, we can arrange a time for you to visit one of the classes so that the children can interview you. We would also like to film/record the interview so that other classes can also access the information. Another way could possibly be that just a teacher interviews you and films/records it, so that the information can be used in classes. Finally, if you are unable to come into school or do not wish to be filmed, you could write down the answers to the questions and send/e-mail to school. This information can then be distributed to teachers to use.

I appreciate that you are busy, however real life examples are always fantastic models to the children and helps them learn much better. Anything that you can provide would be extremely useful and beneficial to us. If you are able to help, please contact the school office to arrange a time when you could come into school for the children or teacher to conduct the ‘interview’ or send in/e-mail your responses for the attention of myself.

Thank you very much for your time.

Lorraine Davies
Assistant Headteacher / RE coodinator

Questions for the Modern Pentecost Person

Can you please tell me about growing up?

Did you grow up in a family where faith was important?

Is faith – Belief in God - important to you?

When did your faith become important for you?

Did something happen or was it something you grew into?
It sounds as if your faith matters to you.

Are you part of a Parish community? Do you have a particular role there?

I’m interested in how your faith affects your everyday life. We have been learning that what people believe affects how they live in the world. For example: some people might choose to buy certain things because of fair-trade; other people might choose not to watch certain things on TV because of their beliefs.

Can you describe some of the everyday things that you do because your faith tells you that you should?

Could you explain why these things are important for you to do?

How they link to your faith and what you believe?

Of all the things that Catholics believe is there one thing that you think impacts most on how you live your life?
Why is that particular belief important?
How does it lead to you living as you do? 

Sometimes it’s hard to live as you would like to all the time.
Are there things that challenge your faith and how you would like to live? 

You faith in God seems to have been a big part of your whole life.

Have there been any big decisions that you have made as a result of your faith? 

Sometimes we talk about ‘Walking with God’ – do you think your life has been walked with God?

Thank you.
One of the things we are learning about is whether people of different faiths think differently about specific issues.
So could I now ask you about what you think about education for young people?

1. What do you think is the role of education in today’s society?
2. Does religion have a place in education?

Does your faith give you any special insight into these questions?

What beliefs do you think link to this question? What particular beliefs help you form your view on this issue?

The School Admissions Code requires us to notify pupils currently in Year 5 and transferring to Secondary School in September 2015 of the results of our tests before they complete the Common Application Form (CAF).  These changes will affect all applications to selective schools and partially selective schools.

As a parish from which pupils have recently applied for a place at St Michael’s Catholic Grammar School, I am writing to ask for your help in raising awareness of the time schedule involved.  We would be particularly grateful if you could include these important dates in your newsletter to prevent disappointment for parents.

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!

Fr Tom Egan

Fr Tom, Fr Damian and the Parish Council welcome you to the Our Lady of Lourdes parish website. We hope that in the months and years to come it will prove a great resource for us all.