On 25th June, Shropshire Humanist Group organised a meeting to look at the complex issue of Assisted Dying. A group whose views represented practically the whole spectrum of opinion on this topic listened with great interest to a presentation by Simon Nightingale, a consultant neurologist, on the current situation.
He explored the meaning of the phrase `assisted dying’ and outlined the legal situation currently where `assisting suicide’ is a crime whereas `not preventing suicide’ is not. The proposed changes to the law, he pointed out, had inconsistencies and there were phrases such as `terminal’ and `unbearable distress’ which are open to more than one interpretation.
Moral questions involved in the subject include the instinctive human opposition to killing another, questions of personal autonomy and arguments about the `slippery slope’ from voluntary to involuntary euthanasia. And, although a majority of public opinion is in favour of changing the law, Simon suggested that the number of people such a change might affect is really very low.
There were several doctors in the audience, as well as members of Dignity in Dying, and there was a spirited discussion about the `double effect option’, where higher doses of a pain-killing drug are given to patients with terminal disease, which may in fact (but won’t necessarily) shorten their life.
The fear that attends the idea of terminal illness was felt to be a large factor in people’s wish to have assisted dying as a legal option. But the medics suggested that in their experience, with good palliative care, the reality was in the main quite different and that `quality of life’ was not something which could be judged by other people. We were reminded, too, that doctors and their diagnoses are fallible.
Probably nobody’s mind was changed by taking part in this discussion, but all points of view were listened to with equal respect and everyone found it a thought-provoking and informative evening.