Just four days after the Assisted Dying Bill was introduced into the House of Lords, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury issued a pastoral letter in which he denounced the draft legislation as an “attempt to make those who have always been ‘care-givers’ into ‘life-takers’.”
The urgency with which the bishop acted is worthy of imitation. Catholics throughout England and Wales would indeed do well to oppose the Private Member’s Bill of Baroness Meacher at every stage of its progress for the stakes are extremely high.
The Bill will permit doctors to supply lethal drugs, on request, to terminally ill patients who appeared to meet certain conditions, among them that a doctor or nurse is on hand when the patient commits suicide. As the Bishop of Shrewsbury correctly observes, it will make medics complicit in such deaths, licensing them to kill for the first time in British history. It crosses a dangerous line.
There has been much reflection on how such a development may change the vital nature of the doctor-patient relationship and the trust that has always underpinned it. Nearly always, it has been from the perspective of the patient. Occasionally the focus is on the impact such an approach to the treatment of serious illnesses might have for health services and to access to good palliative care in particular, which diminishes in every jurisdiction where physician-assisted suicide (PAS) or euthana-sia is legal.
The impact on doctors is less frequently brought into question, but in Belgium, where PAS and euthanasia have been legal for nearly 20 years, many specialists are beginning to actively consider the rise of a new “survivor syndrome” among medics.
“This refers to the huge personal and psychological toll involved in taking human lives, with some medics afflicted by prolonged emotional anguish and nightmares similar to those of people with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Doctor-assisted death is a practice which is impossible to contain or control anywhere and now it is creating emotional and mental health problems among those people exposed to it
The phenomenon emerged as a key concern of contributors to a book called Euthanasia: Searching for the Full Story: Experiences and Insights of Belgian Doctors and Nurses, published in the same month as the Meacher Bill was introduced into parliament.
One contributor, François Trufin, a hospital emergency nurse, said: “More often than not I have been a direct or indirect witness to the deep distress that doctors experience when they perform euthanasia.”
One “filled with tears as he confessed that some nights he wakes up in a sweat, seeing the faces of the very people he has euthanised in front of him,” he said. “Can there be anything harder to bear? Who could guess that behind the confident and experienced doctor, an honest and sincere man endures such suffering?”
Trufin also recalled how “another doctor cried his heart out to the ethics committee: ‘I will do it once more for this patient; but this is the last time. I have already performed euthanasia twice this year, and that is as much as I can bear’.”
Professor Timothy Devos, a haematologist at the University Hospital of Leuven who edited the book, said the problem was so grave that it warranted urgent research.
“For doctors who induce death, the emotional burden is not negligible and can lead to emotional exhaustion and a feeling of loneliness,” he said. “There is an urgent need to acknowledge this phenomenon, to document it, and then, if necessary, to conduct a deeper inquiry into the matter.”
Perhaps Professor Devos was referring to research conducted in Belgium, a country in which in recent years medics have become increasingly vocal in their dissent as they witness palliative care units becoming “houses of euthanasia” – the “opposite of what they were meant to be”, and nurses and social workers walking out of their jobs as their functions are “reduced to preparing patients and their families for lethal injections”.
Other countries are already examining the adverse effects on medics, however. In 2019 academics in Australia summarised the available evidence collectively in a paper called “An indelible mark: The response to participation in euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide among doctors: a review of research findings”.
Investigators went through hundreds of studies from the Netherlands and the United States in particular. They found that up to half of all doctors described an emotional burden after helping to end a life. About half of these said they could not shake it off, reporting a “significant ongoing adverse personal impact”.
The paper quoted one doctor confiding that, “I felt very lonely. I couldn’t share that with anyone… I felt powerless and alone.” Another complained that such practices left an “indelible mark on your soul” and another participant said: “I still always have a sense of guilt. I feel as if I’m an executioner. Who am I to have the right to do this?”
PAS and euthanasia is a subjective experience for every doctor, of course. Tragically, a minority have enjoyed it and consider taking a life in such circumstances to be a “highly moral intervention”.
According to Devos’s book, some are now talking publicly about how it is “monstrous” to deny patients the right to be killed when they complain they are simply tired of life. The objective is clearly to broaden the pool of potential euthanasia candidates further still. It suggests a possible spiritual malaise on their part which is far more dangerous from a Christian perspective than survivor syndrome can ever be. Belgium, it would seem, has yet to find the foot of the slippery slope down which it is cascading.
This, naturally, demonstrates why the Meacher Bill is a bigger problem than it may first appear. It is seductive – offering safeguards, including a right of conscientious objection for doctors and a narrow right of access for patients, controlled by two doctors and a High Court judge.
Yet the most cursory of examinations reveals how it carries within its siren clauses the seeds of its own expansion, its proposed safeguards so vague and illusory as to provide, in reality, scarcely any protection at all.
For this reason alone, many critics see the Bill as little more than a beachhead for a far broader agenda through which, following the experiences of other jurisdictions, symbolic assurances of restraint are soon perceived as barriers to greater access before they are removed.
Crossbench peer Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a palliative care specialist and a past president of the British Medical Association, said: “Euthanasia was introduced in Belgium with the promise of strict safeguards, but time and again they are exposed as meaningless.
“Doctor-assisted death is a practice which is proving virtually impossible to either contain or control anywhere and now it is also creating prolonged emotional and mental health problems among those people exposed to it, something which was never considered at the time of legalisation.
“The Belgian experiment has been an utter disaster. It would be extremely foolish of us to change the law to allow assisted suicide in Britain because we only have to look across the English Channel to see quite vividly where we might well end up.”
We should heed such warnings. Catholics must act now, ahead of the Bill’s Second Reading in the autumn, lest the Meacher Bill become a gateway to a new dystopia in which healers become killers, who not only destroy the lives of their patients but who do irrevocable harm to themselves.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund