Sherborne Abbey Symposium on Assisted Dying

on Friday 20th April 2012 I attended the

Symposium on ‘Assisted Dying – A Christian R esponse’ at the Digby Memorial Church Hall

This account is based on brief notes and memories.  If anything I have said is inaccurate, please let me know and I will correct it.  Also you may find my paper “Mortality, A Time to Live and a Time to Die” of interest.  It is in this Ethical Issues folder and argues in favour of assisted dying.

The day ran from11 . 30 am to 4.30 pm ( lunch included) and attracted over 100 participants.Well organised with four interesting and well-informed speakers it was assumed that a Christian Response would be against assisted dying which of course is not necessarily the case, still it did not stop the questions and discussion that arose from those with a different point of view.

The first speaker was the Rev ‘d Dr Stella Wood, a Theologian at Sarum College. She got off to a good start in her talk on the uniqueness of Man/Woman when she pointed out that the use of highly charged emotional language would be very unhelpful in this context as would any presumption that being either for or against assisted dying could provide a simple solution to the complex issues involved.  There are no easy answers here for the consequences of ether changing the law to allow assited dying or of leaving the law as it is could bring about equally far reaching and unpredictable results.

She then went on to examine autonomy, dignity and human rights “from a Christian perspective”. She emphasised autonomy should never be seen as simple individualism for the Christian. Quoting “No man is an island” and “we are memebers of one body.”  She emphasised human interdependence, saw dignity as something conferred on us by God and argued that talk of human rights is not biblical, rather the emphasis there is on our personal responsibilities and our underserved gifts. It was well expounded but she used all these insights to lean in the direction of saying that there are wider concerns that have to be addressed beyond what seems best for the individual patient.and that this lead her to come down against assisted dying.- I suggested all her points could be used to argue the opposite case (as I had heard the priest at East Coker do) and pointed out that to treat people with dignity in fact has huge financial implications in terms of providing the  resources needed to fund good palliative care.

The Rev’d Dr John Searle, spoke next. A retired Anaesthetist in Exeter and an Anglican priest he gave us a vivid account of how the practice of medicine and the issues surrounding life and death have changed radically during his career, making the old certainies about the point of death, and the role of the doctor either in letting a patient die or in intervening to keep them alive have become much more complicated.

When I asked him what he thought as a doctor and a priest about the soul of someone in a persistent vegatative state or the last stages of dementia, he replied that he did not believe in the soul. I found that an interesting point of agreement with the philosopher Mary Warnock who has written supporting assisted dying.

Dr Peter Saunders, Campaign Director of ‘Care not Killing’ came up specially from London and delivered a carefully focused talk Why we should not change the law.   He emphasised the difficulties legislatures have grappled with when they have set out to turn what starts as a popular aspiration – that assisted dying should be legalised – into workable laws and regulations. The problem is they often come to fear they may have created “a murderer’s charter.” allowing those with a variety of dubious motives to pressure, manipulate, trick or confuse the courts, families and patients into accepting assisted dying in deeply inappropriate cases.  At the same time he was prepared to acceptt that as things stand a significant number of terminal patients can and do have very bad and painful deaths because they are kept alive and in terrible pain either because they are not offered the right terminal treatment or because medical staff are keen to cover their backs against charges of medical negligance.

I found his listing of the legal and practical difficulties sobering.  If we are to move in this direction unintended consequences need to be watched very carefully.

Dr Karen Steadman, Palliative Care Specialist, Dorchester Hospice, ended the speeches by addressing the question : Is palliative care the whole solution? Her presentation was preceeded by two ladies speaking about their experience of excellent hospice care for their dying husbands.  This was moving and impressive.  It also sounded pretty expensive and as Karen pointed out hospice care is still largely dependent on charitable giving and restricted mainly to those suffering from cancer rather than stroke or heart disease and not of course available for those facing dementia. She said she felt assisted dying would come, particularly if the general need for good palliative care became properly recognised, for then the immense costs involved would be only too apparent.  At the same time she felt that she and almost all those working in palliative care currently would not be happy to see it introduced as they saw a range of practical problems that have not been addressed. She feared it could sully the excellent relationships and posiive atmosphere they prided themselves in delivering to their patients. In conclusion she wittily ducked the question as to whether she thought good palliative care was the solution and would do away with  calls for assisted dying. She also told me that the current cost per patient in palliative care works out at about £300 per day, much the same as normal hospitalisation.

The day ended with workshops run by the speakers which gave all an opportunity to be involved in small group discussion.

Dr John Rennie who chaired the meeting, introduced the speakers and was responsible for much of the organisation really had done an excellent job.