‘Assisted dying’ is not painless, peaceful, or dignified, a medical expert has warned, as a bill to legalise the practice is set to be debated by Peers.
In a video interview with the Better Way campaign Joel Zivot, a practicing anesthesiologist and expert witness, stressed that public perceptions of assisted dying are often misplaced, due to misleading language around it.
Mr Zivot is an expert on euthanasia and has given evidence to lawmakers, including in Canada where assisted suicide and euthanasia is legal and widespread.
The intervention comes ahead of a second reading debate on an Assisted Dying Bill introduced to the House of Lords earlier this year. A similar proposal is also being consulted on in Scotland.
‘A horrendous death’
In one clip, Mr Zivot describes a common method of assisted death involving the ingestion of pills. He warns that “there are all sorts of problems” inherent to this method that can lead to a “horrendous” death. [VIEW CLIP HERE]
In another clip, he explains that “assisted dying that starts with a pill can…lead to assisted dying by injection because many individuals are not able to swallow”. On this process, he warns that it: “is more asphyxia by drowning than falling off asleep”. [VIEW CLIP HERE]
Mr Zivot also stressed that the idea death is the only option for some people in terrible pain is flawed, saying: “My job is to reduce suffering and I do it all the time. To suggest that it can’t be done, this is untrue”. [VIEW CLIP HERE]
A spokesman for the Better Way campaign, a coalition of academics, disability activists and medical experts who oppose assisted dying, said
“Proponents of this legislation describe it as ‘safe’ and ‘compassionate’. We would question this. The proposals before UK legislators would see vulnerable citizens given a lethal dose of medication to bring about their deaths. Medical experts have serious concerns that these methods are associated with great pain and distress.
“The actual process of ‘assisted death’ is, of course, just one consideration we face. There are profound ethical dilemmas, concerns about the impact on the disabled people’s community, and fears about the insufficiency of safeguards. We firmly believe assisted suicide is the wrong path for our society.
“We urge politicians to look at the precise detail of what is being proposed and not be swayed by rhetoric by campaigners. And we ask that they turn down these plans in favour of a better way – further investment in palliative care, a redoubling of efforts to prevent suicide, action on disability inequality and the abuse of the vulnerable.”
The Better Way campaign highlights testimonies from individuals with “lived experience of terminal illness” who are opposed to a change in the law, arguing that their voices are often “screened out”.
‘There is dignity in a natural death’
Alison shared her experience of managing a charity providing care at home.
“I have worked as the manager of a charity that provided care at home and as a district nurse. I am trained in palliative care and have significant experience caring for those with terminal illness and chronic conditions. Based on my experience, I fear that many elderly people will feel compelled to opt for an ‘assisted death’ because they feel that they are a burden on their families or the NHS.
“Over the years, I have encountered rare examples of family members or neighbours requesting that I or nursing colleagues increase medication to bring about death more quickly. The purpose of this has been, sadly, so that the relative might gain money, property, or some other inheritance more quickly. This is shocking, I know, but it happens, and I fear that such incidents would be more prevalent under an assisted dying law.
“I have had patients ask me to kill them as their suffering is so great. But in every case, once they have received the correct treatment – counselling, pain relief or just emotional support – they have changed their minds and later thanked me for not assisting their suicide. They have gone on to enjoy extra life and seasons, important events like weddings or the birth of a grandchild and then been able to say a proper goodbye to family and friends.
“There can always be dignity in natural death if it is handled well and with enough resources. A good death does look dignified, even in the most difficult of circumstances.”
‘Patients would be pressured’
Another testimony from a district nurse, Judith, states:
“Having worked in the past as a district nurse I have had the privilege of being with people at the end of their lives. I have supported people during their last months and final moments. I am very grateful that assisted suicide is not an option.
“We cared for people and demonstrated that their lives mattered to the very end – that we were not going to speed their end, and there was no pressure for them to give up. We just wanted people to have comfort and dignity. Of course, this does involve suffering, but good palliative care can relieve distressing symptoms and pain.
“If assisted suicide was legal it would bring so much pressure on people when they are ill, tired, and vulnerable. Instead, we should care for everyone in society, at every stage of life.”
‘As a doctor, I can’t support it’
Christopher, a recently retired doctor who spent the last 15 years of his career in palliative care, states:
“I supported people with terminal illness, mainly helping them stay at home by relieving symptoms and supporting them and their families so they did not need to be admitted to hospital.
“It was an extremely rewarding and satisfying experience. I believe if skilled, compassionate palliative care is available to all, very few will seek to end their own lives, or ask a healthcare professional or family member to enable this to happen. I believe that it is especially important that depression is addressed.
“I am grateful that at the moment euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal. I am horrified by reports from nations where they are legal, knowing that many have had their lives ended because they are overwhelmed by the sense that they are a burden on others. For the benefit of the vulnerable, the disabled and those who feel guilty about being a ‘burden’, I sincerely hope the law will no change.”
‘It would rob us of experiences’
Andrew, who lost his wife to cancer, believes that assisted suicide would have robbed them of a “precious legacy”:
“My wife of 27 years died from very nasty form of lymphoma. If assisted suicide had been available, and she had opted for this solution, we would have missed out on so many wonderful memories, and I would not have realised what an amazing woman I had married.
“We both grew so much closer during her illness. Family and friends came to visit regularly, and they too noticed the changes that took place in us.
“Now, 16 years on from her death, I look back at this time we had together and realise what a treasure it was. I’m so glad I found out about the lovely qualities my wife had, many of which weren’t on display prior to her cancer. Assisted suicide would have stolen this precious legacy from me.”
Notes for Editors:
The Better Way campaign is supported by:
Dr Miro Griffiths, Leverhulme Research Fellow in Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, and policy adviser to regional, national, and supranational bodies.
Phil Friend, Chair of Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC), Vice Chair of the Activity Alliance, a Churchill Fellow and a former chair of Disability Rights UK and RADAR.
Dr Kevin Yuill, a lecturer in History at the University of Sunderland and author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation.
Dr Ashley Frawley, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Swansea University in Wales.
David Albert Jones MA (Cantab), MA, MSt, DPhil (Oxon), Professor of Bioethics at St Mary’s University, a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre.
Joel Zivot MD, FRCP(C) MA, practicing anesthesiologist, intensive care doctor and expert witness.
Issued on behalf of the Better Way campaign by Jamie Gillies:
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