It is “genuinely wicked” for a doctor to refuse to help a terminally ill patient kill themselves, Baroness Warnock has said.
Speaking earlier this month at a debate in Belfast, Baroness Warnock asked: “What is the point of life at the last stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia?”
Fears were raised at the debate that allowing assisted suicide would turn doctors into executioners.
But Baroness Warnock said doctors have a “positive duty” to talk to patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia about what they want to do when their condition declines.
Last year Baroness Warnock prompted strong criticism when she suggested that elderly dementia sufferers have a ‘duty to die’.
She said: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”
In the recent Belfast debate she spoke of patients who make a written request to be killed when they reach a certain point in their illness, saying: “There are doctors, we know, who don’t pay any attention.
“But that seems to me a genuinely wicked thing to do – to disregard what somebody had quite explicitly said, that he wants to die – not to be resuscitated in certain circumstances and in certain circumstances to be helped to commit suicide.”
In the audience at the debate was Avril Robb, a solicitor and member of the Medical Legal Society, who cared for her parents through terminal illness.
“I do know that the last months were very precious.”
Commenting on the suggestion that assisted suicide should be legalised, she said: “I don’t know whether it means that if this law was ever brought in, you end up with the equivalent of an executioner”.
In her controversial comments last September, Baroness Warnock said: “I’m absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there’s a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they’re a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.
“Actually I’ve just written an article called ‘A Duty to Die?’ for a Norwegian periodical. I wrote it really suggesting that there’s nothing wrong with feeling you ought to do so for the sake of others as well as yourself.”
But Neil Hunt, the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said at the time: “I am shocked and amazed that Baroness Warnock could disregard the value of the lives of people with dementia so callously.
“With the right care, a person can have good quality of life very late in to dementia. To suggest that people with dementia shouldn’t be entitled to that quality of life or that they should feel that they have some sort of duty to kill themselves is nothing short of barbaric.”
The British Medical Association is opposed to allowing doctors help patients to kill themselves. Dr George Fernie of the BMA recently said: “People when they have a debilitating illness that may end their life are extremely vulnerable, they’re at a fragile stage.
“And our worry is they’re going to contemplate ending their life when that really isn’t their wish.”
“You just don’t know what will happen”
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, Dr David Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”
“A different life”
The Times recently reported the story of Matt Hampson, a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human.
She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.