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Legalising assisted suicide would harm vulnerable people High Court hears

Author: Admin
Date: 13th December 2012

The current ban on assisted suicide makes matters “crystal clear” for doctors and its removal could result in vulnerable people opting to have their lives ended so as not to be a burden on others, a palliative care specialist has told the High Court.

Giving evidence yesterday in the case of Marie Fleming, Dr Tony O’Brien said he supported the total ban on assisted suicide here, the Irish Times reports.

Dr O’Brien is medical director of Marymount hospice and a consultant physician in Cork University Hospital.

Ms Fleming (58) is an MS sufferer in the final stages of her disease. She is seeking legal permission to end her life with the help of her partner.

However, Dr O’Brien told the court that legalising assisted suicide would be “entirely radical” and would amount to allowing doctors “to try and kill pain by killing patients,”

It was “quite impossible” to devise safeguards to protect such people and “nothing could be safer” than the ban.

A palliative care specialist from the UK, Prof Rob George, said offering the option of interfering in the dying process through assisted suicide “completely reclassifies the role of medicine” and “changes society fundamentally” as it involved reclassifying the intentional ending of a person’s life, at their request, as “a societally mandated good”.

Such a move in the Netherlands had led to a “slippery slope” or “paradigm shift”, Dr George said.  

What began there as voluntary euthanasia had become involuntary for those without capacity on grounds it was in their best interests, he said.  

He added that the possibility of offering euthanasia to children was now being discussed in the Netherlands.

The legalisation of assisted suicide for one defined group would create an obligation to look to others who sought it. Such a move would also lead to “moral hazard” for those who assisted in taking a life as they might suffer unforeseen consequences themselves.

In the UK, among the most vocal opponents of assisted suicide were disability groups, who believe it involves making assumptions about their quality of life, capacity and value when they are already at the receiving end of assumptions concerning their disabilities, he added.

Both doctors were giving evidence on behalf of the State in the continuing action by Marie Fleming (58) challenging the constitutionality of the ban on assisted suicide in section 2.2 of the Criminal Law Suicide Act.

Ms Fleming also wants orders requiring the DPP to outline the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether to prosecute.

Yesterday Dr O’Brien told Shane Murphy SC, for the State, he had 26 years experience with 30,000 dying or suffering patients, and believed Ms Fleming’s situation might be improved physically, emotionally and spiritually via engagement with palliative services at the highest level here.

Ronan Murphy SC, for Ms Fleming, said she had availed of every palliative care option offered to her and had not refused any treatment, Dr O’Brien said he believed she might benefit by re-engaging with the palliative care services.

Prof George said, by legalising assisted suicide, the notion of killing someone as a solution to a problem was being introduced and there is “no knowing where that will go”. Introducing adequate safeguards to prevent errors and abuses was an “insurmountable” task and legalising assisted suicide would lead to deaths of patients who had not expressed a wish to die.

Those jurisdictions that had legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia showed increasing numbers were availing of it, and the figures in the Netherlands were equivalent to 11,000 deaths a year in the UK, he said.

He was concerned about potential for abuse and unintentional coercion of people towards assisted suicide. This was not about “malicious people setting out to kill Grandma” but, for example, full-time family carers unintentionally expressing frustration at the person being cared for.

The case continues.

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