Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

5 Points of Controversy from Monday’s Debate


Last Monday, November 9th, a panel of four experts – Dr. Peter Saunders, Dr. Kevin Yuill, Dr. Richard Scheffer, and Dr. Jacky Davis – came together to debate the motion ‘This House opposes the legalisation of assisted suicide’. After a forty-five minute exchange, the panel opened up for questions, most of which addressed specific claims repeated by each side throughout the debate. Both the proposition and the opposition relied on several key points to make their cases; here, we take a look at the ones that proved the stickiest.

‘Assisted dying isn’t suicide’

Dr. Scheffer began his opening remarks with this punchy assertion. ‘Nobody’, he claimed, ‘wants to die’. Unlike those who commit suicide, he argued, those who choose assisted dying don’t want to die, but are already dying and simply want to avoid a highly painful or undignified death. Dr. Davis affirmed this in her speech as well; the pair emphasised that assisted suicide ought to be considered a vital part of palliative care for the dying, and is not for the suicidal.

But this is controversial. After all, an audience member asked, what about nihilists? Why is the desire to live a criterion for being able to ask a doctor to help you die? And how is it possible to argue that those asking for legal drugs, to take themselves, don’t want to die? If assisted dying isn’t suicide, there’s very little that seems to distinguish the two; fundamentally, both are caused, at least in part, by a desire to end one’s own life. And after some grumbling, Drs. Scheffer and Davis admitted that this is true; at the very least, those who ask for assisted dying have formed a will to die by the time they actually do so.

‘Assisted dying laws undermine moral equality’

Dr. Yuill’s arguments hinged on this claim. Assisted dying laws, no matter how well-worded and safeguarded they may be, ultimately create two moral classes of people in society; those whose lives are worth protecting, and those whose lives are not. A terminal diagnosis and six-month prognosis, he argued, are just arbitrary criteria, which can be changed or thrown out once it becomes permissible to say that person A may not be given lethal drugs, but person B may. Those who wish to die may not believe their lives have value, but it is the duty of the law to afford every life value, and equal value at that. The opposition didn’t counter this point directly, but instead argued that assisted dying is about freedom, not equality.

‘It’s working in Oregon’

In the final round of questions, Dr. Saunders remarked that ‘it’s pretty clear we have different ideas about what’s going on in Oregon’. Oregon came up frequently in the debate, as assisted dying bills in the UK have been largely modelled off of Oregon’s assisted suicide laws. The opposition cited Oregon’s law as a perfect example of a restricted, safe, functional assisted dying law. The proposition, on the other hand, pointed out that only a fraction of those who die by assisted suicide in Oregon actually underwent the psychological evaluations that candidates for assisted dying are supposed to receive, showing that the safeguards aren’t really that effective. Moreover, they pointed out, in Oregon, health insurance for low-income people covers assisted dying, but doesn’t cover many forms of palliative care. It can be more expensive to keep someone alive than it is to kill them; Oregon is a sad example of this.

‘Assisted dying undermines and threatens the vulnerable’

Dr. Davis rejected outright the claim that assisted dying undermines vulnerable people. She cited an instance in which her patient came to her, saying she’d been told to oppose the law because it threatened ‘vulnerable people’, but she didn’t know who those people were supposed to be. The vagueness here is worth clarifying, which the proposition could have done more of. Still, they pointed out that in places where assisted dying is legal, the elderly, frail, lonely, and depressed often feel increased pressure to consider physician-assisted suicide, because a previously unthinkable option is suddenly on the table. Though many of those who would be in this position are, sadly, on the fringes of society, many have come forward to oppose assisted suicide; some of the strongest opposition to a change in the law has come from disability advocacy groups.

‘The law would be restricted, and safe’

Time and time again, proponents of assisted dying have emphasised that any change in the law in the UK would be heavily safeguarded, and that therefore a ‘slippery slope’ argument just doesn’t work. Drs. Scheffer and Davis both repeated this point. But the proposition responded that despite good intentions, advocates for legal assisted dying can’t deny that safeguards have failed in many places, and that once the law is changed, there’s no guaranteeing its application. While the law may have safeguards and restrictions, once the door to legal physician-assisted suicide is opened, there’s simply no way to make sure it’s not abused. Are we willing to risk it?


The audience wasn’t – a final vote passed the motion by a significant margin. While both sides made clear and strong points, the opposition couldn’t persuade those listening that any good assisted dying laws could do wouldn’t be outweighed by the tremendous risk we would take in passing them. Though both sides emphasised compassion and mercy for the dying, the proposition made a powerful case that legal assisted suicide would be a threat to public safety. The push for assisted dying isn’t a solution to our problems; it’s a symptom of them.


For those who want to learn how to defend the pro-life position against assisted suicide, come along to Hertford on Monday for an apologetics workshop. More details here and here.

Event Preview: “This House Opposes the Legalisation of Assisted Suicide”


Legal assisted suicide, as proposed by the Marris Bill, was rejected by the House of Commons earlier this year after considerable media attention and public debate. 330 MPs voted against the bill, with only 118 in favour, in the first vote on the issue in nearly twenty years.

The Suicide Act of 1961 currently makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or suicide attempt in England and Wales. Anyone found to have done so may face up to 14 years in prison. Many in the medical profession oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide, believing it would result in a transformation in healing ethic of their work, and that it must remain illegal ‘for the integrity of these professions and the public good’.

Many people, on both sides of the assisted dying debate, are motivated by compassion. But is it right to ask doctors to help end the lives of those they serve? In response to the Marris Bill’s defeat, Dr Peter Saunders said the law ‘protects those who have no voice against exploitation and coercion; it acts as a powerful deterrent to would-be abusers and does not need changing.’

What do you think? Want to know more about it?

Come along to Christ Church on Monday at 7:30, for what will be an interesting debate on the issue by four excellent speakers.

Proposing the motion will be Dr Kevin Yuill, senior lecturer in Culture at the University of Sunderland and author of ‘Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalization’. He will be joined by Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director of ‘Care Not Killing’, former general surgeon, and chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

Opposing the motion will be Dr Richard Scheffer, a palliative care doctor, former hospice director, trustee for Compassion in Dying, member of Health Professionals for Assisted Dying and a board member for Dignity in Dying. He will be joined by Dr Jacky Davis, who is a consultant radiologist, co-chair of the NHS Consultants’ Association, executive member of the National Health Action party and a member of the National Health Action party.

Stay after the debate to have a drink and for a chance to meet the speakers!

Amnesty International is wrong about the Eighth Amendment


Liam Neeson recently recorded a voiceover for an Amnesty International video calling for abortion to be legalised in Ireland. As the camera pans over the ruins of a Catholic church, Neeson talks about a “ghost of the last century” that still “haunts this land”, bringing “suffering and even death to the women it touches.” That ghost is the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution, in which the state recognises the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.

Neeson is one of Ireland’s great actors, but this isn’t his finest piece. As a piece of pro-choice advocacy, the video fails. (It’s been viewed over 90,000 times on Youtube, but has a thumbs-down to thumbs-up ratio of more than 3 to 1 – my impression is that most pro-choice people in Ireland are vaguely embarrassed by it). But its existence makes perfect sense. Those who want the Eighth Amendment repealed are committed to the story it tells: that the Eighth is a part of old, bad, Catholic Ireland, a place where women’s health is put at risk in the name of dogma, and we’ll only be a truly modern, progressive country when we get rid of it.

That story is so important to tell because the truth could hardly be more different. The reason campaigners for repeal are trying to make the debate about “ghosts of the last century” is that Ireland proves that it’s more than possible to be a modern, egalitarian democracy with world-leading maternal healthcare, all without abortion. It’s the embodied contradiction to the horror stories told by pro-choice campaigners around the world about what a country with pro-life laws would actually be like.

Ireland passed the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which ensured that abortion remained effectively illegal in Ireland until 2013. After a 1992 Supreme Court ruling interpreting the Eighth’s “due regard” clause to allow abortion when a woman is judged to be at risk of suicide, the Irish Medical Council cited the lack of medical evidence that abortion ever reduced suicide risk, and continued to define direct abortion in all cases as medical malpractice while making it clear that withholding necessary medical treatment from a pregnant woman would also get a doctor struck off the medical register. Did this policy lead to disaster for women’s health?

It lead to Ireland achieving one of the lowest maternal death rates in the world in 2010. That rate has recently increased to the same level as France’s, but it’s still lower than the UK’s. Every preventable death is a tragedy, but the idea that the Eighth Amendment is bringing “suffering and even death” to women just isn’t true.

The debate over the 2013 legislation that legalised abortion on the grounds of suicide gained a lot of its momentum from a cynical exploitation of the tragic death of an Indian woman named Savita Halappanavar in an Irish hospital.

Three separate inquiries have since concluded Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis mismanagement, a problem that’s on the rise in hospitals in both Ireland and the UK  (there’s no space here to get into the details of the case: but Wikipedia’s page is unusually good), but that didn’t stop most of the Irish media running with a story about repressive Irish abortion laws leading to the death of a young woman (the story was leaked to pro-choice groups a few days before it as first published in the Irish Times.

Nor did the fact that her death had nothing to do with suicide make a difference: in the end, what mattered was the narrative – the same narrative that features in the Amnesty video calling for constitutional change.

Those who want to repeal the Eighth amendment are focusing our attention on the hard cases – and they are hard: because there are some situations in which there is no way to avoid suffering and heartbreak. When a baby won’t live long outside the womb, there’s nothing that can take away that grief.

But I know some of these hard cases: cases like that of Baby Liam Óg, who lived for nine weeks, three days and forty minutes after birth, and during that period received so much love from his parents Anne and Liam, his older sister Eileen, and the wider network of family and friends whose lives he touched.

Ireland’s abortion law wasn’t needed to save baby Liam’s life – but it did something else, something crucial. It recognised his dignity and his equality: it stood as a testament to the fact that this child’s nine weeks, three days and forty minutes outside his mother’s womb, as well as the 9 months he lived before he was born, were every bit as worth living, every bit as valuable, as the life of any other person.

Making Liam Óg’s short life shorter would not have helped him – and it would not have helped his parents Anne and Liam. When I speak to families who have continued with pregnancies where there child has a terminal condition, I hear about healing, about closure, about peace. The pain and grief doesn’t go away: of course it doesn’t. But it is not the whole story.

Orla O’Connell is a midwife working in Cork University Hospital who specialises in caring for families suffering going through pregnancy loss. Some of the things families have told her about having their babies:

“It was unbelievably painful but the most healing experience imaginable”.

“Having Timothy has made me a better person, he gave me the gift of understanding what life is about, what I am about and living in the present.”

““The media campaign for termination of pregnancy made me feel like I had something to hide”.

“If abortions had been legal in Ireland I would have done it so I am glad it wasn’t.”

People who want to relieve the suffering of families in this situation by legalising abortion are motivated by genuine compassion. But their solution is the wrong one. There is a better path. There are as many better paths as there are children.

Opening those paths for women and families who feel that every way is closed off is the most important work of the pro-life movement in Ireland. We are not defending the status quo – far from it. The Eighth amendment was only ever a first step: necessary but not sufficient. We, like Amnesty International, think that the more than 4000 terrible journeys that Irish women make to the UK every year to have abortions are a disgrace. The difference is is that we want to address the reasons that women feel they have to make the journeys.

Amnesty would seem to be satisfied with making the journeys shorter, and bringing the clinics where so many women talk about being treated coldly and inhumanly to Ireland.

The Irish pro-choice movement used to be interested in reducing abortion: a conference in the 1998, 5000 Too Many, brought together some of the leading figures in pro-life and pro-choice movements who wanted to co-operate to bring that number down. Since that time, the Irish abortion rate, then the lowest in Europe, has decreased even further.

But now the movement to repeal the Eighth is lead by people like Senator Ivana Bacik, who stood up at that conference to protest its existence, saying that there was no right or wrong number of abortions. Presumably, the more than 16,000 abortions a year that would happen if Ireland’s abortion rate matched the UK’s would be, to her, no loss.

As pressure builds for repeal, the Irish pro-life movement will need to pursue a two-part strategy: a strong defence of the equal right to life that the Eighth Amendment recognises, and a big, broad, progressive campaign against all the things that prevent that right being vindicated. Sexism and family-unfriendly workplace policies; stigma and lack of support for student parents; prejudice against people with disabilities and economic injustice. All these are obstacles to the true abolition of abortion in Ireland, and while they still exist pro-lifers will always have a mission.

But it’s a mission that our constitution and our laws still recognise as a good one, and a mission that is both inspired and aided by the Eighth Amendment’s clear and unambiguous affirmation that all human beings are truly equal. I’m hardly the world’s most patriotic person, but the existence of the Eighth amendment has always made me quietly proud of my country.

Ben Conroy is studying PPE at St John’s College. He’s worked as a freelance journalist and has been published in newspapers such as The Irish Times and The Irish Catholic. He also blogs for Patheos.

5 things we learned from Philippa Taylor’s talk on foetal disability

This Monday Philippa Taylor addressed OSFL in its first event of the term on ‘Should foetal disability be a ground for abortion?’ Philippa addressed different aspects of the current UK law on abortion and disability, as well as looking at what society can do to improve the experiences of those who learn that the child in their womb may have a serious disability. She engaged us all in a vital conversation we otherwise might not have considered and here are 5 things we learned:

  1. The law is ambiguous

-Ground D of the Abortion Act 1967 permits abortion up until birth in such situations where ‘there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.’ The law however is no more specific over what “substantial risk” or “seriously handicapped” actually mean, leaving room for dangerous ambiguity. Doctors widely disagree on the specifics, largely because pre-natal diagnoses are often extremely unreliable. As Philippa pointed out, it has led to cases of abortion being justified for a cleft lip or clubfoot.

  1. The question over disability is similar to sex-selective abortion

-Philippa pointed out the fact that allowing abortion up until birth for disability can logically be compared to making abortion legal on the grounds of sex-selection (which is of course illegal in this country). At the heart of both situations is the question over whether some lives are more worth living, and rightly our society attempts to legislate against this sort of discrimination. However, since it would be natural to oppose a clause allowing for abortion on the grounds of sex as discriminatory, surely the same is also true of the current law allowing for abortion on the grounds of disability. Whilst it’s important to recognise that the two are practically very different, it is an interesting comparison worth considering.

  1. Whatever the law, numerous difficult issues will always arise

-An important point to realise when discussing a sensitive issue of this sort is that, whatever the law, disability will always exist inside and outside of the womb, and the law can’t legislate suffering away. Philippa reminded us to focus on what sort of society we want to create. Her answer:

  1. Society should treat those it can, and care for those it can’t

-Whilst making this point, Philippa acknowledged that there still remains the very difficult instance of rare cases, where children are diagnosed with a really terrible illness, especially one that is potentially fatal. Recognising that there is no easy answer to these situations, Philippa told two very powerful stories. One of them was about a child named Benedict, who died 4 hours after his birth. His mother knew of the fatal illness but had decided to carry him to term, and when asked whether it was worth it, she replied: “Oh yes, for the chance to hold him, see him, and love him before letting go, and for the chance for our other children to see that we would never stop loving them regardless of their imperfections.”

  1. Peri-natal hospices can provide the support needed

-Most in the room hadn’t heard of these hospices, and Philippa said that from her experience most expectant mothers carrying a child with a disability hadn’t heard of them either. They do incredible work giving care, love, and support for mothers and families who know that their child will likely die shortly before or after birth. One example is Zoe’s Place Trust (there are three in the UK), but sadly hospices of this sort lack funding and aren’t numerous in the UK.

Event Preview: Philippa Taylor on Abortion and Disability

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On Monday night, we’ll be joining Philippa Taylor, head of public policy at the CMF, for a talk on ‘Should foetal disability be a ground for abortion?’. So, why is this a pertinent topic for discussion, and why should you come along?

Ground D of the 1967 Abortion Act, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, allows abortion up to birth in circumstances where it is discovered ‘that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.’ In almost all other circumstances, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks’ gestation. The question is, is this discrimination against the disabled, if indeed discrimination before birth is such a thing?

Statistics for 2013  show that 2,732 abortions were carried out because of foetal abnormality – 22% because Down’s Syndrome was detected. We’ve discussed the sadness of this fact before. Despite the wording of the law determining that the signs would need to point to the child being ‘seriously handicapped’, there have been claims that abortions have been carried out for such things as cleft lip and club foot – things which routine surgery can easily treat. But then, there are cases of much more serious disability where the child might not survive birth, or the child will live a life that is fraught with suffering. We must address the very acute problems and pains that such diagnoses can cause.

These are all very sensitive issues whose impact touches, or indeed overwhelms the lives of many. My Grandma was paralysed from the waist down for 10 years. My best friend’s dad was born with one arm. The boy I looked after on my year abroad had Down’s Syndrome. As individuals, we all know people with disabilities and we all know that some are lived with in relative ease whilst others render life unbelievably challenging. As a society, we are becoming much more aware of the lives of people with disabilities and the obstacles that they and their families face, as dramas such as BBC’s ‘Don’t Take My Baby’ help demonstrate. We too need to become more aware of whether the current abortion law is in line with the changing ways we are looking at disability or if it flies in the face of such progress.

Email us at studentsforlife.oxford@gmail.com to reserve a place for Monday’s talk – details here

Jo Jackson is co-President of Oxford Students for Life

What we’re looking forward to this year…


The year ahead is an incredibly exciting one for OSFL. With a number of great events planned, and many more ideas still in the pipeline, we can’t wait to get started. As before, our work is going to focus on two main areas. Firstly we will be organizing events directed towards fostering discussion of life issues, and secondly we are committed to improving the lives of student parents on campus.

At the start of September the House of Commons emphatically voted against the Marris Bill, proposing the legalization of assisted suicide. In all likelihood the question won’t return to a commons vote until the next parliament at least, but given its prominence in the news we thought it appropriate to focus on this question for Michaelmas. For our main event of the term we have invited Dr Kevin Yuill, author of ‘Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization’ and Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director for the Care Not Killing Alliance and formerly a general surgeon. They will be proposing the motion ‘This House opposes the legalization of assisted suicide’, against two representatives from Dignity in Dying, the leading campaign group in the UK supporting legalization.

At the end of the term, in the next installment of Life Chats, we are very excited to have Greg Jackson, former OSFL member and Student Support Officer for the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, presenting a session on assisted suicide apologetics. He will be tackling some of the thornier issues surrounding autonomy, suffering, and legalization.

Our first event of the term, however, is on a different topic. Philippa Taylor, Head of Public Policy at CMF, will be addressing us on the very delicate issue of foetal disability. In UK law abortion is only legal up until 24 weeks, unless the foetus displays “physical or mental abnormalities”, in which case abortion is legal up until birth. This poses numerous complex and sensitive questions, including potential discrimination towards disabled people, and we look forward to hearing Philippa’s talk on the matter.

With regard to student parents, there is a huge amount of work to be done and lots to build on from the excellent start made by the student parents sub-committee last year. Over the summer we had a very productive meeting with the newly elected Student Parents and Carers rep at OUSU, and look forward to working together as much as possible. Our initial focus is going to be on passing motions in the different college MCRs and JCRs, so that nappy changing tables are installed and high chairs are available in halls. Whilst doing this, we hope to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by student parents, by handing out information leaflets and running another student parent week, similar to the one held at the start of Trinity last year.

It is sure to be an eventful year, and one which we hope will make an actively positive contribution to student life at Oxford, whether that is through campaign work for student parents or by offering new perspectives on complex issues that affect each and every one of us. We always want to hear from you, and have been really encouraged by messages people have sent suggesting events. If ever you want to help out in any way, do not hesitate to get in touch!

For more information on events, including dates, timings, and venues, please visit our website or Facebook page.

Johnny Church is co-President of Oxford Students for Life

Rethinking ‘death with dignity’

There are 3 days until Parliament will debate Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying Bill. The strongest support for the bill has come from the group Dignity in Dying, which has led the campaign to legalise physician-assisted suicide in the United Kingdom.

Dignity in Dying, like other advocacy groups for physician-assisted suicide, claim that dying with dignity means being able to choose how, when, and where we die. Many people face painful physical or mental decline at the end of life, and proponents of assisted dying argue that it’s only fair and compassionate to help those people avoid that decline by committing suicide with the help of a doctor if they wish. The premise of their argument is strong – people can experience overwhelming pain and fear in the face of death, and they deserve all of the care and support that they need. But it doesn’t follow from this that assisted suicide is a good idea, or that it will protect human dignity. There’s more than enough evidence to show that the actual effects of assisted dying bills are often disastrous. Assisted suicide laws don’t preserve human dignity – they attack it.

What does it mean to say we have dignity? If human beings have dignity, it is because we have value – nothing worthless can be dignified. Assisted suicide bills, however, enshrine in the law that some lives are less valuable than others. Laws exist to protect us. So laws which allow for the killing of the terminally ill, the disabled, or the unborn establish that not all lives are valuable enough to be worthy of protection. Many supporters of assisted suicide counter that if a person wishes to die, their will should take precedence over external evaluations. But it’s a pretty thin concept of value – and would make for a very poor law – to say that a person’s worth is only as great as their desire to live. Those who might be most tempted to take advantage of assisted dying laws – the weak, the suffering, and the lonely – are exactly the people whose dignity is in need of affirmation. Assisted suicide laws pull the rug out from under them.

Dignity doesn’t come from choosing how we die. It’s not nobler to swallow poison than to die of cancer. Dignity comes from having value, which human beings do. Laws that deny that value are an assault on dignity. The Marris Bill doesn’t offer dignity in death, it offers a degradation of life. It is in no-one’s best interest to move it forward.

A medic’s reflections on palliative care and assisted suicide

How people die remains in the memory of those who live on.” – Dame Cecily Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement.

During the last two months of my fifth year “Community Care” medical placement, I have had the precious opportunity to spend time with palliative care patients and physicians. It was an experience that not only gave me knowledge about this oft-forgotten kind of medical care, but also engaged my whole person, emotionally and spiritually, and left me with a new respect for the dying and those who care for them. I am thankful for the wisdom I gained from the experienced palliative care consultants, nurses, and chaplains at Sobell House hospice in Oxford, and Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed.

As a medical student, I have more opportunity than most to experience the hard realities of sickness and disease. But before this placement, I had spent little time with the dying, perhaps because I was more enthralled by the high tempo work of the emergency department, or the advanced interventions in cardiology.

Dr Adams, a wonderfully competent and compassionate palliative care consultant at Sobell House, taught me about the management of terminal patients: pain control, relief of nausea and constipation, and tending to emotional and spiritual needs. I learned about three of the big fears faced by the dying: fear of being in pain, of losing dignity, and of being a burden to loved ones. An elderly gentleman confided in me “I do love my family and I know they are all so busy, and I don’t want to burden them, so I hope I go soon.” I was told that it is not unusual to find patients concerned about becoming an unwanted burden on their relatives and carers.

Yet there were also those who took great delight in the time that they had left, and wished to stay alive as long as possible. “The thing that keeps me going is the only thing that makes me happy: spending time with my family”, one woman revealed. For some, a fear of the unknown in and after death, or a longing for forgiveness, was prominent. For others, a confidence in life after death brought peace. “I know where I am going”, reflected one man.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the value of a good death. By a good death, I mean one in which a patient has had the chance to share memories with and say goodbye to loved ones, to set their affairs in order, to prepare themselves spiritually, and has been relieved from physical discomfort. Relatives, while grieving after a death, also shared their appreciation of the time spent together at the end. While many in our society may wish for a quick death, I think I would rather have this opportunity to spend my last days surrounded by family and friends, cared for by a team of experts.

Palliative care may begin to look very different to future medical students in the future. Next month MP Rob Marris will introduce a Private Members Bill into the House of Commons designed to allow doctors to assist in the suicide of patients with a terminal illness. At the moment, doctors are prohibited from killing and from assisting suicide, but under the proposed legislation they would be allowed to select a poison of their choice, advise the patient how to take the drug, and even insert an intravenous line for the drug to be given efficiently.

I’ve often heard people suggest that doctors currently use drugs to help people die, and that all is being proposed is regulation. But this is just not true: palliative care doctors use opioids and benzodiazepines to treat pain and anxiety, so that the precious last hours, days and weeks can be as valuable as possible. These drugs are used to improve one’s quality of life, not to end it altogether. The drugs used in assisted suicide, barbiturates in massive overdose, are completely different, designed to kill rapidly.

Of all the palliative care physicians that I spoke to, not a single one of them supported a change in the law on physician-assisted suicide. They recognise that the current law works, and that under the proposed law, pressure on terminally ill patients to end their lives may come from family members or medical professionals, but also may be self-imposed by those feeling they are a burden to others. I hope that the excellent work of the palliative care teams I joined can continue -without the threat of assisted suicide – for many years to come.

Josh Peppiatt is a 5th year medical student at Green Templeton College, Oxford

The actual consequences of physician-assisted suicide

Slippery slope arguments may usually be fallacious, but hard facts aren’t. As we draw nearer to Parliament’s debate the Marris Bill, we at OSFL thought we’d cast an eye over just a few of the problems that have arisen following the legalisation of assisted suicide abroad. This is by no means a comprehensive list and more information can be found here http://www.bioethics.org.uk/evidenceguide.html, here http://www.livinganddyingwell.org.uk/, and here http://www.carenotkilling.org.uk/.

Let’s start with Oregon in the USA, since it has a law that is most similar to the one proposed in the Marris Bill. In Oregon, patients requesting lethal medicine as a result of depression or mental illness are meant to have a psychological test carried out. Only 3 patients of 105 last year had this examination. Medicaid covers assisted suicide in Oregon, but it doesn’t cover many important drugs that improve quality of life: life becomes expensive and death free. Over years, the financial costs of palliative care stack up  – when NHS budgets are squeezed, could we see economic pressure to end lives?

The state of Washington has largely copied Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, with some frightening results. The briefest doctor-patient relationship before the prescription of an assisted suicide was under a week. Could any doctor really judge the pressures and problems a patient faces after only knowing them a week? In 2014, 59% of people asking for an assisted suicide stated as motivation the fear that they would be a burden on family, friends, or carers. This flies in the face of the common claim that assisted dying empowers the frail.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are both famously legal in the Netherlands. In 2012, 3% of deaths in the Netherlands were the result of euthanasia or assisted suicide.  Of those, 7% were done without the explicit request of the patient. A lot of arguments for assisted suicide emphasise the will of the patient. But if an assisted suicide is truly in a patient’s best interests, it’s unclear why it should only be prescribed if he or she asks for it. In practice, the role of explicit consent can easily fade away. Furthermore, Dutch children aged 12-16 are able to request and be assisted in suicide if their parents agree. The Marris Bill is limited to those over 18. But again, why shouldn’t this eventually change to include children if there is nothing wrong with assisted suicide? Some Dutch patients have been granted an assisted suicide when they are simply ‘tired of living’. The safeguards in the Marris Bill aren’t safe – they have eroded everywhere that similar laws have been put in place.

In the news recently for extending euthanasia to children of any age, Belgium is a cautionary tale for a country deciding whether or not to legalise assisted suicide. For the most part, Belgian patients are not referred for an assisted suicide by a doctor who is a specialist in palliative care. In other words, they are referred by someone who does not have expert knowledge of ways to minimise suffering. To an unspecialised doctor, assisted suicide may seem like the best option because he/she does not know what else to offer. Assisted suicide is being prescribed in ignorance.

But you don’t even need to look at real-life consequences of physician-assisted suicide to see what’s wrong with it. If Parliament passes the Marris Bill, it will send the message that the lives of the terminally ill are worth less than the lives of the healthy, and that the state will no longer protect the sick in the same way. The law should not be making judgements about the value of people’s lives. All life is valuable, and deserves protection.

To write to your MP, go to http://notoassistedsuicide.org.uk/Let them know that life is valuable.

Assisted suicide would change the way we respond to despair

Nathan Verhelst, a trans man from Belgium, had struggled with mental illness since childhood. At the age of 44, after a series of crises, he took his own life. Sadly, that is not so uncommon. What was unusual were the circumstances. Verhelst received a lethal injection from a doctor, as part of Belgium’s standard bureaucratic procedure for those in ‘unbearable suffering’. The doctor explained that Verhelst’s suffering qualified as unbearable because after six months of counselling he was still suicidal. If that kind of reasoning makes you uncomfortable – if you wonder whether six months of counselling amounts to everything that might have helped Nathan Verhelst – then look away now, because it could be coming to the UK.

If Rob Marris’s assisted suicide bill is passed on 11 September, and survives the rest of its progress through Parliament, this country will become more dangerous for the elderly, the ill, the disabled and the depressed. So say the British Medical Association, Disability Rights UK, and the Royal College of GPs. At the very least, the principle of caution should warn against this bill.

Everyone can feel the pull of the case for assisted suicide. Many people are in physical and psychological pain; they say, repeatedly, that they would rather be dead than alive. Who could possibly be indifferent to their distress, and their hope that it might end?

We experience a stab of guilt, hearing their stories. And guilt is not the worst motive. If it prompts us to help the people at the margins of our own community, or prompts government to improve palliative care, guilt can do a lot of good. But it is a poor basis on which to pass a law which will change the fabric of society. This law will not simply abolish a category of suffering: it will create new ones. The evidence everywhere suggests that the main result of assisted suicide laws is to surround unhappy, lonely people with exit signs.
In Oregon, the supposed paragon of such a law, the chief effect has not been on those in physical pain. Less than a quarter of those receiving poison say they are worried about pain, or even the possibility of pain; the main reasons are ‘loss of autonomy’ (91%) and ‘decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable’ (89%). According to a high estimate, over 30% of recipients in a single year may have had their judgment impaired by undiagnosed depression.

Still, to give Oregon its due, there is a fundamental difference from Britain. Oregon Right to Die, the body behind the law, were from the beginning moderates. Their intention, according to one of their leading figures, Eli Stutsman, was to ‘campaign for the right to die and against Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the same breath’. They were, if you like, doves rather than hawks.

The British right-to-die movement is different. It is a flock of hawks with some official doves fluttering around in the vanguard. The doves assure us that this Bill will go no further than Oregon’s restrictions: it will apply only to the terminally ill. (An elastic category in any case, as the disabilities campaigner Baroness Campbell has pointed out.) But the hawks are more articulate and more consistent in applying the logic of total self-determination. Baroness Warnock, a leading intellectual light of the movement, predicts a future in which ‘you’d be licensing people to put others down’. Polly Toynbee, one of Fleet Street’s most influential voices for a change in the law (and for further changes down the line), concedes the possibility ‘that the frail will be intimidated into hastening the end of their lives so as not to be a burden on their children’. She comments, in a disturbing foretaste of things to come: ‘Well, why not?’ The Economist recently proposed that the opportunity for taking poison be extended to people with depression. Well, in Belgium they are already living the dream. Euthanasia is up 25% on last year, and the law becomes ever less discriminating in its effects.

There, as Rachel Aviv reported in a must-read article for the New Yorker, euthanasia has taken away people with ‘autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression’. This is scarcely the picture painted by the likes of Dignity in Dying.

In 1931, the great psychologist Carl Jung noted that many of his patients suffered from ‘the senselessness and aimlessness of their lives… I should not object if this were called the general neurosis of our age’. If anything, that diagnosis is truer today. Suicide is the biggest killer of young British men, and the UK is incubating a crisis of loneliness and mental illness. Usually, we try to build hope and solidarity against despair. But Belgium has discovered an alternative. “If the patient’s energy is gone,” one euthanasia doctor tells Aviv, “then it is not humane to say, ‘Well, maybe if you go to a hospital that specializes in your problem for two more years it will help.’ I think we have to respect when people say, ‘No – that is enough.’” Sorry, doctor, but running out of energy is a symptom of depression: a lot of people feel that they have ‘had enough’, are useless, and would be better off dead. It makes all the difference whether they are listened to and given support to carry on. In some places, that seems to be going out of fashion.

The testimony of doctors suggests that when suicide becomes institutionalised, a society becomes anaesthetised to the preciousness of human life. One Dutch doctor recalled the first time he administered euthanasia. The first case was ‘terrible’, he said. His team agonised all day before carrying it out. The next one, he said, was much easier. ‘The third case’, he concluded, ‘was a piece of cake’. That is a report from the bottom of the slippery slope, and it turns out to be quite a short slope. Assisted suicide will weaken the bonds of society. It will nudge towards the edge exactly the people we should be hauling back from it. One day we might be asked if anybody tried to stop it.

To write to your MP, go to http://notoassistedsuicide.org.uk/

Dan Hitchens is a former President of Oxford Students for Life.


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