BY MADELEINE TEAHAN
SOCIETY must be motivated by compassion rather than fear when dealing with the dying, the Archbishop of Westminster has said in renewed criticism of a drift toward euthanasia in Britain.
During a Mass for the sick at Westminster Cathedral, Archbishop Vincent Nichols argued that fear of unrelieved suffering and loss of control were increasingly evident in the care of the dying. He also spoke of the “hidden violence” done to sick and dying patients by an attitude that treated them as nothing more than the sum of their physical parts.
He quoted from the NHS charter, published in 2009, which says: “We – the NHS – respond with humanity and kindness to each person’s pain, distress, anxiety or need. We search for the things we can do, however small, to give comfort and relieve suffering. We find time for those we serve and work alongside. We do not wait to be asked, because we care.” Archbishop Nichols said: “These are splendid sentiments. They are suitable as a mission statement for any Lourdes pilgrimage. Often, they are fulfilled in NHS hospitals, for which so many are very grateful. But sometimes they are not, as some will know from personal experience. Where this happens it is not simply a matter of the attitudes of individuals, though of course that is part of the story. It is also about the prevailing culture in an institution, the pressures of control and delivery which can impair and diminish the ability of staff to care properly.” In contrast to its constitution’s stated aims, Archbishop Nichols said, some NHS hospitals were failing to demonstrate either a “true compassion” for patients or “a deep respect and attentive care of the whole person”.
Instead, he said, those whose job it is to treat patients can often lack “a sense of humility, a profound respect for others, and a refusal to see them as no more than a medical or behavioural problem to be tackled and resolved”.
Society seemed not to know how to deal with death, which, he said, was not just a clinical event. He added that the spiritual dimension of a person must be acknowledged by carers.
He said: “In the care of the dying there is so much disquiet and dispute today – campaigns for assisted suicide and euthanasia; fears of unrelieved suffering and loss of control; fears of over-treatment – that is, of inappropriate aggressive medical interventions as life nears its end. Then there is the opposite fear of under-treatment or neglect – sometimes, for instance, food and water may be simply put in front of patients unable to feed themselves who are then noted as having refused their food. We do not know how to deal with death. But fear cannot be our guide.” He then quoted from a draft consultation document issued by the bishops earlier this month about the spiritual care of the dying.
He said: “Respecting life means that every person must be valued for as long as they live. One implication of this is that death should never be the aim of our action or of our inaction. We should never try to bring about death.
“On the other hand, accepting death means that we should prepare properly for death. One implication of this is that we should not deny the reality of the situation or flee from the inevitable by seeking every possible treatment. A religious person will see both life and death as coming from God. Every human life and the person who lives it are always more than a bundle of genes and actions. Even the most restricted of lives is lived in transcendence by virtue of being human. If we fail to see this and honour it, then we not only fail to respect a person – we do that person violence.
“There is a hidden violence in so many of our systems, even those of care, because their operational mode is reductionist. If we reduce death to a clinical event and manage it through a series of standard procedures then we do not deal with death well, either clinically or humanly.” The Sacrament of the Sick was later administered by Archbishop Nichols and the auxiliary bishops and clergy of Westminster diocese.
Archbishop Nichols’s words echoed those of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said last week that a relaxation of the law on assisted suicide would cross a “moral boundary” into “very dangerous territory”. He said that assisted suicide would be a moral mistake that would undermine the rights of the most vulnerable.
Their comments reflect a growing concern among Christians about a celebrity-driven push towards the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and arrive on the eve of the publication of fi nalised guidelines for prosecutions of assisted suicides. As The Catholic Herald went to press there was widespread speculation that the final version would be released imminently.
The guidance follows the victory of multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy in a high-profile legal battle in July 2009. After that case the Law Lords instructed Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, to clarify the law on assisted suicide. His interim policy published last autumn outlined factors that would make prosecution of assisting a suicide less likely, including a situation in which the victim was terminally ill or has a severe incurable disability. The bishops of England and Wales argued that this approach would dilute the state’s duty to protect the disabled and terminally ill. They pointed out that Parliament has twice rejected a change in the law in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia and to develop such a policy was ignoring the will of Parliament.
This factor in particular has provoked strong opposition from medical and disability rights organisations also, whose members fear that such a policy would gravely undermine the state’s fundamental duty of care.
A similar battle is also raging in Scotland where Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow this week spoke out against MSP Margo MacDonald’s End of Life Assistance Bill. This would allow assisted suicide in Scotland for people aged over 16 who have suffered a severely disabling accident or who are terminally ill. Archbishop Conti argued that such legislation was wrong in principle, saying “hard cases make bad law”.
In Westminster the celebrity campaign has led to an Early Day Motion tabled by Conservative MP Ann Winterton accusing the BBC of “persistent bias” in favour of legalising euthanasia while ignoring the disabled lobby’s opposition to a change.
The latest case, initially reported by the BBC, is that of broadcaster Ray Gosling who claimed to have smothered his lover who suffered from Aids.
The debate also intensified after a court cleared Kay Gilderdale of attempting to murder her suicidal daughter Lynn, who suffered from ME and overdosed on morphine. The Gilderdale case was documented by the BBC’s Panorama. This coincided with the annual Dimbleby lecture, broadcast by the BBC and delivered this year by Sir Terry Pratchett, the fantasy novelist, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The BBC has insisted that the timing was a coincidence.
Former Heath Minister Patricia Hewitt, patron of Dignity in Dying (formerly named the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), is working closely with the pressure group in order to coordinate a Commons debate on the issue before the general election, expected on May 6.