As Ireland prepares for an abortion referendum next year, the Oireachtas Justice Committee is already considering assisted suicide. One of the experts to appear before it was gerontologist, Professor Des O’Neill. He flagged to the committee what he called ‘gero-eugenics’ that is, the deliberate elimination of the elderly. He also warned of the assault on the conscience rights of doctors.
Referring to colleagues from the Netherlands, he said that they felt pressure to kill patients, through euthanasia. In Canada they are discussing sanctions against not only doctors who do not want to facilitate assisted suicide but also against those who do not want to refer on to other physicians. Freedom of conscience is hugely under threat and is now presented as an assault on the rights of the patient.
If euthanasia is legalised, “it is hard to see how the health care profession cannot be involved and we have an ethical imperative to oppose this, just as the doctors should have done during Nazism in Germany”, Professor O’Neill said.
We are all going to die but there is no right to die, Professor O’Neill stated. “Unfortunately, the right to die with dignity has been adopted as a slogan effectively as a synonym for assisted suicide.”
He maintained that there is an artificial and inappropriate attempt to separate out two forms of suicide: bad suicide, for which we actively feel sad and grieve, and do everything we can to prevent, and ‘good suicide’, presented as an end to suffering. We close our eyes to the fact that we talk about effectively the same thing.
Arguing from what he defined a “health care ethics perspective”, he claimed that in the current debates about the end of life, “autonomy has been hugely pushed on the forefront, without the equilibrium of other elements like health care, beneficence, doing good to people, non-maleficence, not harming people.”
Professor O’Neill stated that if there was a regime of assisted suicide it would put pressure on older and vulnerable people. “It would be very much … internalised. We have to send out a message to people of disability of whatever age that our impulse is to care, to cure sometimes, to relieve often and comfort always.” He used the expression “gero-eugenics” to indicate the tendency to eliminate old people when they are perceived to be a burden.
On the other hand Louise Campbell, a bioethicist of NUI Galway, was cautiously in favour of legislation of assisted suicide, when the purpose is to end suffering. She claimed that the values of medicine have evolved since Hippocrates and in recent times there has been a shift in the role of medicine at the end of a patient’s life. In the past the healing role of doctors was understood to keep patients alive but now it is also to relieve suffering. Defining in the law what is unbearable is problematic and different individuals have different understanding of what makes their life worth but some kind of threshold is required, she believes.
Karen Hall, speaking on behalf of Disability Action Northern Ireland, also strongly opposed to any attempt to introduce assisted dying. “Changing the law for a small number of people will have greater consequences on society” She said, “a bit of risk of abuse is too much”. She said that most disability rights organisations resist assisted suicide and are now coming together, from a human rights perspective. In international human rights law there is no right to die but there is a right to life, one of the most fundamental, she said.