Misplaced Compassion

The Press to Allow Assisted Suicide in Britain

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, OCT. 11 , 2009 (Zenit.org).- Debate over assisted suicide flared anew in Britain a few days ago with the news that in doctors were obliged to allow a woman to die who had intentionally swallowed anti-freeze.

According to an Oct. 1 report by the BBC, Kerrie Wooltorton, 26, had made a living will that requested no intervention if she tried to take her own life. News about the case came out as a result of a recent inquest into her September 2007 death.

According to the coroner, doctors at the Norwich University Hospital would have risked breaking the law by treating her.

“She had capacity to consent to treatment which, it is more likely than not, would have prevented her death,” the coroner declared in his findings. “She refused that treatment in full knowledge of the consequences and died as a result.”

Subsequently, Health Secretary Andy Burnham commented that Parliament might review the Mental Capacity Act that regulates such cases, the Telegraph newspaper reported Oct. 4.

Burnham said that the case of Wooltorton took the law into “new territory” which he did not believe had been intended by legislators.

A spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference supported a revision of the legislation.

“What now appears to be the case, however, is that this section of the code is not clear or strong enough,” the spokesman said.


Despite repeated defeats of proposals submitted to parliament in recent years to allow euthanasia, the pressure to loosen laws is continuing. One contentious issue regards British citizens who commit suicide with the help of the Switzerland-based Dignitas group.

Those who help someone to use the services of Dignitas could be prosecuted by British authorities. This summer, Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, won the right to be told under what circumstances her husband could be prosecuted if he went with her to the Dignitas clinic.

The ruling by the Law Lords required that the Director of Public Prosecutions specify when the state will act if someone helps a friend or relative to commit suicide abroad, reported the Daily Mail newspaper, July 31.

According to the report, Purdy plans to go to Switzerland to commit suicide when her pain becomes unbearable, and she wants her husband, Omar Puente, to be with her.

The ruling was criticized by Anthony Ozimic, of the pro-life group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children: “It sends out a terrible message to disabled and the seriously ill that they are less valued than others.”

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, QC, recently announced the guidelines requested by the Law Lords. He warned that they do not give a guarantee against prosecution, the Times newspaper reported, Sept. 23.

Starmer did, however, admit that prosecution was unlikely as long as people do not maliciously encourage the act of suicide and assist only a “clear, settled and informed wish” to end life.

This did not mean assisted suicide clinics could be set up in Britain, he added. “Assisted suicide has been a criminal offence for nearly 50 years and my interim policy does nothing to change that,” he said.

According to the Times, more than 100 Britons have ended their lives at the Dignitas clinic. The guidelines are made up of 16 public interest factors in favor of prosecution and 13 factors against prosecution.


The Dignitas clinic might be popular with Britains, but its activities are widely criticized. Doctors in England have warned that a number of people ending their lives in this way were not suffering from terminal illnesses, the Guardian newspaper reported, Jun. 21.

The Guardian obtained a list of 114 people from the United Kingdom who have ended their lives at the clinic. Among other cases, a couple of them had bowel disease, three had kidney disease, and one suffered from arthritis.

“I’m horrified by this list,” Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, told the newspaper. “I’m concerned because I know that many of the conditions outlined are conditions patients live with and can live with for many years and continue to have productive and meaningful lives.”

More doubts about the clinic were raised when a former employee, Soraya Wernli, strongly criticized some of its practices. In an article published July 19 in the Sunday Times, Wernli described Dignitas as a money-making operation for its owner, Ludwig Minelli.

“It has become an industry,” said Wernli, 51, who added that the price charged by Dignitas had risen from 2,000 pounds (US$3,211) seven years ago to 7,000 pounds (US$11,239) today.

The article described how on one occasion Wernli persuaded an English woman with cancer not to go through with suicide, as she could still have a decent life with the right health care. Later on the woman wrote, thanking her for saving her life.

According to a July 18 article published by the Telegraph, state prosecutors in Zurich have unveiled new rules governing the way organizations such as Dignitas are allowed to operate.

The legislation requires that patients undergo a longer period of counseling at the clinic before being able to commit suicide. The new regulations come into force in the fall of this year.

“Suicide trips to Switzerland are not going to be banned, but there are going to be stricter controls; so-called ‘quick suicides’ for foreign patients are set to be outlawed,” said Zurich Justice Minister Markus Notter.

Other threats

Although euthanasia remains illegal in Britain, there are concerns over how patients with terminal illnesses are treated. A group of experts who look after the terminally ill wrote a letter to the Telegraph newspaper, published on Sept. 2, warning that patients are being made to die prematurely.

Under guidelines from the National Health Service, dying patients can have fluids and drugs withdrawn, and many are put on continuous sedation until they pass away.
The experts observed that such treatment can mask signs that the condition of such patients is improving.

“Forecasting death is an inexact science,” they said. As a result, patients are being diagnosed as being close to death “without regard to the fact that the diagnosis could be wrong,” the letter continued.

Earlier, an Aug. 12 report published by the BBC said that the use of continuous deep sedation is a form of slow euthanasia.

The article cited research from the London School of Medicine and Dentistry that says such sedation accounts for about one in six of all deaths.

They quoted Dr. Nigel Sykes, medical director of St. Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, as saying that only a handful of patients each year requires sedation to make them unconscious at the end of their lives.

Adequate care

If all patients had access to high quality palliative care there would be no case for assisted suicide, declared Steve Field, Chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, in an opinion article published June 22 in the Guardian newspaper.

Unfortunately, the health and social care services are unprepared to meet the needs of many who are nearing the end of their life, Field pointed out. In this situation, assisted suicide is not the right answer, he insisted.

For his part, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster maintained that the notion of a right to a “good death” undermines society, in an article published July 16 in the Telegraph.

If we reduce human life to the status of a product, to a question of quality control, then we undervalue what is human life, Archbishop Nichols argued. If, instead, we cherish human life from its beginnings to its natural end then we grow in our humanity, rather than lose it, he concluded. Valuable words of advice as arguments continue on how to deal with suffering.

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