Michael Kelly: Why world-class end-of-life care should be our priority... not the slippery slope towards euthanasia
When I studied metaphysics at university, the larger-than-life professor had a running gag about the widely held perception that philosophy is, well, useless. He'd begin the lecture, then ostentatiously interrupt himself to instruct a student near the back of the theatre to ensure that the doors were fully closed. "Otherwise", he'd laugh, "it'll confirm the worst suspicions of the science students about philosophy".
He'd then go on to enthral us with seemingly abstract discussions about being, knowing and identity, and poke holes in the hapless arguments of undergrads. It was a great training ground, and every assumption, claim and belief would be rigidly interrogated and subject to scrutiny. One of my abiding lessons of that time was the fundamental metaphysical law that, all else being equal, it's better to be than not to be.
At first glance, this seems like a fairly uncontroversial statement. But what about when one considers quality of life? What about those who feel that they have had enough of living? Should people be allowed to end their lives at a time of their own choosing?
These are questions that we will increasingly have to grapple with. An ageing population will inevitably mean more chronic illnesses. It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to know that euthanasia and assisted suicide will, sooner rather than later, become the next big moral battleground.
Currently, euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal; it is a crime to help someone to end their own life. Currently, only a handful of countries permit doctors to kill their patients.
The Netherlands was the first to cross this particular Rubicon. It legalised euthanasia in 2002 for people who doctors judged to be experiencing unbearable suffering.
Children as young as 12 are entitled to have their request to be killed considered. Parental consent is required up to 15, but parents have no veto once their child has reached age 16.
Euthanasia legislation began from a desire to deal with the most heartbreaking of cases, but over time the definition of 'unbearable suffering' was loosened. In 2017, two Dutch government ministers revealed plans for a "completed life" bill that would give anyone over 70 years of age the right to receive a lethal poison, cutting the doctor out of the equation completely. The proposal was eventually withdrawn, but many expect it to re-emerge in one form or another.
Campaigners for euthanasia and assisted dying frequently dismiss arguments about a 'slippery slope' where it becomes more and more common, but Holland is a case in point. The law has expanded to include people who might otherwise live for many years, from patients with dementia to mentally ill young people.
Many proponents of euthanasia and assisted dying support the procedures out of a sense of compassion and not wanting to see people suffer unnecessarily but, as the Continental example shows, it creeps and creeps until it becomes a lifestyle choice.
An article in the Guardian this week claimed that almost everyone in The Netherlands knows someone who has died by euthanasia. It's an appalling vista and inevitably puts pressure on people to end their lives. This could well be exacerbated as the growing older population feel the strain of limited health resources.
In Britain, Baroness Warnock - a prominent campaigner for euthanasia - provoked controversy when she claimed that pensioners in mental decline as a result of dementia were "wasting people's lives" because of the care they require and should be allowed to opt for euthanasia, even if they are not in pain.
No one wants anyone to suffer - that's why excellent palliative care, pain relief and funding for hospice care must be top of the agenda.
We should learn the painful lesson from the Continent and realise that world-class end-of-life care should be the priority, rather than snuffing out the lives of the inconvenient and bothersome.
Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic