Euthanasia, euphemisms and me

The NHS Assisted Dying drop-in centre

The Knife has complained before about one aspect of euthanasia/”assisted dying”/whatever euphemism you want this week, namely the utterly weird idea that if such legislation were passed, doctors would be expected to do the dirty deed. I’m sure that there are plenty of unemployed headcases who’d do the job for not much more than the minimum wage. They might even dress up like a real doctor to make the relatives feel a bit better about it.

Euthanasia is one of those things that the BMA (but not its mouthpiece, the BMJ) has avoided backing, but there are numerous BMJ readers who are mad keen on it, judging by a recent poll – though tellingly, they’re not necessarily all doctors. One wonders how many of the respondents would actually be queueing up to inject the poison.

Anyway, probably in an attempt to provide “balance” (judging by the following letters), here is the letter  from a GP, Adrian Houghton, who has just written to the BMJ in response to a recent editorial:

Godlee draws parallels between euthanasia and abortion reform in the 1960s.1 So let’s examine what happened after abortion legalisation in 1967. Lord Steel should know as he introduced the Abortion Bill. Forty years later he stated: “Everybody can agree that there are too many abortions . . . There is a mood now which is that if things go wrong you can get an abortion, and it is irresponsible really.”2

Are we, if euthanasia were legalised, one day going to say, “Everyone can agree that there are too many cases of euthanasia . . . There is a mood now which is that if things go wrong you can get euthanasia, and it is irresponsible really”?

Godlee is not the first to compare euthanasia with abortion. In 1974 John Habgood observed: “Legislation to permit euthanasia would . . . bring about profound changes in social attitudes towards death, illness, old age and the role of the medical profession. The Abortion Act has shown what happens. Whatever the rights and wrongs concerning . . . abortion, there is no doubt about two consequences of the 1967 [Abortion] Act:

“(a) The safeguards and assurances given when the Bill was passed have to a considerable extent been ignored.

“(b) Abortion has now become a live option for anybody who is pregnant.”3

Of course fundamental parallels exist between abortion and euthanasia. Both are based on a utilitarian view of life: if a pregnant woman can get rid of her social and financial pressures through abortion, why not get rid of social and financial pressures from the sick through euthanasia? And why do we need consent when the Netherlands and Oregon have shown that euthanasia and assisted suicide happen without consent, despite “safeguards”?4

Euthanasia enthusiasts could heed the warnings from abortion history. But we learn from history that we don’t learn from history.

Any proper doctor in active clinical practice will recognise the truth that the care of the dying – not their elimination – is one of the most important and fulfilling aspects of practice. It also amazes me how many patients willingly cling to life, however much they appear to be suffering.

Hippocrates’ recommendation has not really changed, after all in his day it wasn’t exactly difficult to bump someone off, and there were if anything, far more terminal conditions:

“I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel”


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