Euthanasia And The Significance of Mrs Pretty And Miss B

Both euthanasia, and its variant, assisted suicide, are wrong.  First, because they are counter to a proper understanding of the dignity and value of human life, and second, because they distrust the providence of God.  Supporters of euthanasia argue in their favour mainly on two grounds.  First, so-called compassion – ‘we put down sick dogs, why not humans?’, and second, personal autonomy – ‘it’s my life and I’ll do as I please.’  These people are gravely mistaken and their arguments are spurious.

Yet none can doubt that the threat of legalised euthanasia is approaching, and fast.  Earlier this year, Holland became the first country in the world to decriminalise euthanasia.  Belgium is about to follow suit.  How long before it arrives in the UK?

In fact, it has already started.  On 4 February 1993, the Law Lords made the landmark decision that doctors could lawfully end the life of Anthony Bland, the young victim of the Hillsborough disaster, who was in a permanent vegetative state (PVS).  Their Lordships granted permission for doctors to stop giving him food and water.  This was under the guise of ‘withdrawal of treatment’, but everyone knows what happens when human beings are refused food and water – they die of dehydration, as happened to Anthony Bland nine days later.

The Bland case opened the euthanasia door just a little.  Since then the deaths of at least another twenty-five PVS patients have been authorised by the courts.  So non-voluntary euthanasia, that is, where the patient makes no explicit request, is already being practised in the UK.

Now the spotlight has turned to euthanasia of the voluntary variety, where the patient makes an explicit demand.  Two recent, much-publicised cases were those of Mrs Diane Pretty and Miss B.  They were similar, yet different.  Both cases were certainly heart-rending.  Both women were 43 years old.  Both were paralysed from the neck down.  Both were therefore physically incapable of doing the deed alone – they both needed help – so what they were asking for was that variant of euthanasia, assisted suicide.  They were different because Miss B was already receiving life-giving treatment in the form of a ventilator.

Diane Pretty suffered from motor neurone disease.  She wanted to express her autonomy by ending her life at the time of her choosing.  In August 2001, Mrs Pretty sought immunity from prosecution under the 1961 Suicide Act for her husband, Brian, who would assist her to commit suicide.  The Director of Public Prosecutions refused to give such an undertaking.  In October 2001, she won the right to challenge that decision before the High Court.  In November, she lost her case, but was given permission to petition the Law Lords.  In December 2001, they too refused her.  Then, in March 2002, she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.  In April, that Court refused her request, saying while there was a ‘right to life’ enshrined in the 2000 Human Rights Act, there was no ‘right to death’.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this sad case is that Mrs Pretty spent the last months of her life entangled in legal battles, paperwork and court appearances – instead, she should have been receiving palliative care and preparing to die well.  In truth, she became the puppet of pro-euthanasia campaigners – her case was financially supported and conducted by Liberty and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

Miss B, a former social worker, became paralysed when a blood vessel burst in her spinal column.  For the next year or so she was kept alive by a ventilator.  Then she decided that she wanted no more of that.  So she took her NHS trust to court because her doctors failed to comply with her wishes.  They maintained that her decision was not fully informed because she was not prepared to consider any rehabilitation at a special spinal unit.  Nevertheless, a psychiatrist assessed her as competent.  Then Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the most senior family judge in the UK, accused the hospital of failing to recognise Miss B’s personal autonomy.  She said that Miss B had, ‘… an absolute right to refuse consent to medical treatment for any reason, rational or irrational, or for no reason at all, even when that decision may lead to her death.’

Miss B was intelligent, articulate and very determined.  She was eventually moved to another hospital where her ventilator was turned off and she died in late April.  Perhaps the saddest aspect of this case is that she had been reported to be a Christian and a gospel singer.  Nevertheless, she wanted to snuff out this God-given life and talent.  We immediately contrast this with the courageous and heartening ministries of Joni Eareckson Tada and dozens of other severely-disabled believers.  Even Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said that Miss B, ‘… would have a lot to offer the community at large.’

What we are witnessing is the legalisation of euthanasia in dribs and drabs.  First, there will be non-voluntary euthanasia for the incompetent, particularly those in PVS.  This, of course, has already begun.  Second, there will probably be the legal recognition of living wills, or advance directives.  This is already being officially discussed.  Third, legalised voluntary euthanasia, or assisted suicide, will be brought in, for just a few, with alleged safeguards to prevent abuse of the many.

Each of these stages has been, or will be introduced, little by little, via difficult and hard cases.  That is the significance of Diane Pretty and Miss B – they are prime examples of this trend.  Nor will they be the last – similar legal challenges will inevitably follow.  And the slippery slope is extremely steep and hazardous.

When these three stages have been completed, and found to be increasingly acceptable to the public, then the fourth stage, a comprehensive, permissive Act will be introduced.  It will allow direct, wholesale and widespread euthanasia by lethal injection, of both the voluntary and non-voluntary varieties, that is, for those who ask, and for those who do not, because they cannot.  This will be the 2008 Euthanasia Act – the date is a sheer guess on my part, but interestingly, while I was writing The Edge of Life, I revised it downwards, twice.  With such a permissive and destructive Act, together with the 1967 Abortion and the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Acts, we will have come full circle and managed to trivialise every aspect and stage of human life.

To say that Mrs Pretty and Miss B were wrong will be regarded by some as callous.  But we maintain that deliberately shortening human life is always wrong.  Nor are mere tea and sympathy for the dying ever enough.  What the Christian must offer is principled compassion, the sort of care and caring that is deeply rooted in the ethical framework of the Bible.  How to die well is the last and greatest of all human aspirations.  Christians should be in the vanguard of this grand enterprise.  The two basic questions we need to answer immediately are, when will we wake up to what is already happening?  And, what are we going to do about it?

[Dr Ling’s new book, The Edge of Life Dying, Death and Euthanasia, pp. 288, £8.99, ISBN 1 903087 30 9, was published earlier this year by Day One.]

John R. Ling

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