Books blog: This is the book which Professor Stephen Hawking needs to read

Professor Stephen Hawking supports assisted suicide (PA)

The Catholic Truth Society has produced a timely booklet on the euthanasia question. Entitled, 20 Answers: End of Life Issues, it should be read by all Catholics, especially those (and I have met several of them) who say “I don’t agree with the Church on this issue.” It is one of the most important issues of our time (the Bill’s second reading in the House of Lords is scheduled for 18 July), kept in the public eye by Lord Falconer, the chief proponent in the campaign for ‘Dignity in Dying’. It has also been confirmed that Rob Marris MP will introduced an assisted suicide Bill, broadly based on Lord Falconer’s proposal, which will be debated in the House of Commons on September 11.

As our parish priest warned us recently, “Lord Falconer will not stop until he gets what he wants”. If you look at the campaign’s website you will read: “With an influx of new, enthusiastic MPs, we are optimistic that there is greater support in the Commons for assisted dying than ever before.” Did we elect these new MPs because of their “enthusiasm” for making it legal to kill vulnerable people?

Written by Jason Negri, a US attorney and assistant director of the Patients Rights Council in the USA, the booklet puts the case for opposing any changes to our current law calmly and clearly. As he says, it would allow physician assisted suicide (PAS) to become “systematised”: “Like other legitimate medical treatments, in certain circumstances it will be looked on not as an option but an expectation – normal practice.”

On the emotive argument made by those who say they don’t want to see others suffer the way their own relatives had to suffer, Negri suggests that “there are essentially no circumstances in which [a patient] should have to live in unmitigated pain”. Palliative care staff agree with this – but it is still thrown down as the trump card by Lord Falconer’s supporters and whenever particular hard cases hit the headlines.

Negri also raises the question of the cost of end of life care. Apparently hospital costs alone during the final three months of life average over “£4,500 per person”. He reflects that if as a society we were more accepting of death as a natural conclusion to life we would not be so keen to stay alive “at all costs”. He thinks that we need to learn that “pursuing every possible medication, therapy or treatment to extend our lives a little might not outweigh the collective burden such efforts place on us and our loved ones.”

This can be very hard on doctors, especially when pressure is put on them to do everything they can to prolong life. This is not just the case with gravely ill adults. There are occasional heartrending stories in the news about tiny premature babies whose parents (naturally enough) are desperate for them to live – but in cases that sometimes only prolong the dying process. Negri comments that although some people do take the view that there is a moral obligation to use any and all possible means to preserve and sustain life, neither Catholic teaching nor traditional medical ethics “make this standard obligatory.”

If PAS were legalised, how would it be done? People sometimes think that removing food and water makes for a quick death. It doesn’t. Negri describes the appalling suffering of death by dehydration in medical detail (the process can take up to three weeks), commenting that it “is a horrible, horrible way to die.” It is likely that medical staff would want to speed up the process on “compassionate” grounds, bringing in the likelihood of a lethal morphine injection. Doctors and nurses would simply become killers.

Lord Falconer also has too benign a view of human nature. Not everyone who is watching a relative die is moved by the noblest motives. Negri states, “As an attorney, far too often I see broken families where strife, mistrust, neglect, avarice and outright malice are present.” It sounds the stuff of a macabre TV series; as TV reflects the level of the surrounding culture we would in all likelihood be treated to this kind of drama in future, if PAS prevails.

Professor Stephen Hawking has also added his own influential voice to the debate, on Lord Falconer’s side, in his recent comment that he would consider assisted dying if he were in great pain or felt he had nothing left to contribute to the world. What does this say to other old people who image a painful end for themselves and who might feel their own contribution to the world is paltry by comparison with his brilliance as a cosmologist? We might not all be acclaimed scientists but our lives nonetheless have a unique and irreplaceable dignity – and we can all gaze in wonder at the stars.