The leading organisation representing health professionals caring for the elderly in Britain has this last week spoken out strongly against the legalisation of assisted suicide.
The British Geriatrics Society is the professional body of specialists in the health care of older people in the United Kingdom.
It has over 2,750 members worldwide and draws together experts from all the relevant disciplines in the field - doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and scientists.
In a powerful statement issued on 10 July the society says that whilst it respects that patients have a ‘right’ to determine the choice of treatment and care they receive and some symptoms are ‘difficult to control’ a policy which allows physicians to assist patients to die is ‘not acceptable’.
Speaking from the experience of caring for ‘many older people with frailty, disability and those who are dying’ the experts ‘accept life has a natural end’ and believe that their job is not to ‘prolong life at all costs’ but to ‘improve quality of life’ whilst accepting that death is inevitable.
They express deep concern that many requests to end life come directly or indirectly from the patients’ families and not the older person themselves: ‘Often such requests are then forgotten if such degrading symptoms as urinary and faecal incontinence, depression and unremitting pain are relieved.’
They argue that the clear priority is ensuring that the best possible care is available.
They observe that much of the public demand for assisted dying seems to stem from ‘the fear of a prolonged death with increasing disability sometimes associated with unwanted burdensome medical care’.
But they argue that this suffering at the end of life can be prevented ‘by a change in the focus of care – from prolonging life to addressing the individuals own priorities and symptoms, and by the involvement of medical professionals skilled in palliative and end of life care’.
They call upon law makers to ‘consider not only the rights of individuals in society but also society itself and the impact the legislation will have on all members of our communities’: ‘The BGS is concerned with protecting the interests of vulnerable older and disabled people who already feel pressure to give up their lives to reduce the burden they feel they cause to others.’
They then warn that ‘crossing the boundary between acknowledging that death is inevitable and taking active steps to assist the patient to die changes fundamentally the role of the physician, changes the doctor-patient relationship and changes the role of medicine in society.’
Legalising assisted dying, they conclude, ‘will lead to a change in attitude to death in society and also within the medical profession. The prohibition on intentional killing is the cornerstone of society and it is worth preserving the notion that all lives are precious.’
The statement comes in the lead up to the debate on Robert Marris’s Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Commons on 11 September. Marris wants to make it legal for mentally competent adults with less than six months to live to be prescribed lethal drugs on the say so of two doctors and a High Court judge.
He would do well to heed these voices of experience.