Warning: This article refers to distressing situations at the end of life which may be very painful for readers who have recently been bereaved.
In an earlier article I discussed some of the religious objections to Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD). In this article I want to look at some of the statements by religious bodies to Oireachtas committees considering VAD.
It seems to me that the fundamental objection of religious bodies is that only God has the right to dispose of human life. However, the religious argument is never stated in that form.
The bishops also assert the that human dignity is ‘inherent in every human person by virtue of his or her human nature’, so a human cannot die without dignity. They conflate ‘dignity’ with ‘worth’. I agree that every life has value but an individual is affected by the quality of their life. A terminal illness where there is extreme intractable pain, with no prospect of relief is not a life of quality and I suggest that there is not much dignity in pleading for the suffering to end. And those of us who advocate for VAD to be made available think that individuals should have the choice to end their lives in such circumstances.
The bishops talk about compassion, a key word in the argument for VAD. To quote a colleague: ‘The bishops deliberately take an etymological, literal, dry, dispassionate, abstract, conceptual meaning of the word ‘compassion’: as meaning ‘to suffer with’ someone, rather than recognising the suffering of another and try to do something to relieve that suffering.
There seems to be a failure of imagination and empathy, leading to an inability to recognise that extreme suffering may occur and that it would be compassionate to allow someone to end their unbearable suffering.
The Presbyterian Council of Ireland (PCI) criticises proposals for VAD for being focused on the physical nature of humans, rather than the whole person. But this is not the case: the argument for VAD is based on the recognition of the whole individual; who we are is not separable from our physical suffering, and with physical suffering comes emotional suffering. For many people at the end of life permission for VAD provides ‘emotional insurance’ that they can choose to end their and they can get on with living to the full the life that remains to them, instead of being dominated by the fear of a painful death.
Palliative Care is Not a Panacea
Both the Roman Catholic bishops and the PCI place great store on the ability of palliative care to help people die with dignity. They fail to recognise that (as discussed in an earlier article; see also blogs on EOLI website) palliative care, although often very successful, is not always able to treat ‘physical and psychological distress’ at the end of life. In such cases VAD may be preferable to putting a patient into a ’deep coma’ and waiting for them to die. Both organisations seem to see VAD as somehow opposed or in competition with palliative care for funding. They are not in competition: they are both part of a holistic package of end-of-life care. Every country where VAD is available has seen an increase in funding for palliative care. The majority of patients seeking VAD are receiving hospice or palliative care.
Religious organisations are of course entitled to express their views on human life and the choice allowed to individuals. What they may not do in a pluralist democracy is to impose their view and rules on those who do not share their views.
Alan Tuffery is a member of End of Life Ireland. We are a voluntary group advocating for legislation to allow Voluntary Assisted Dying in Ireland. This is the thirteenth in a series of fourteen short articles on issues about voluntary assisted dying (VAD). The first article can be found here.