Veteran Irish barrister William Binchy has told the Oireachtas Committee looking at Assisted Suicide that people who are old and physically frail “may be concerned they are becoming a burden on their families” and in turn, be more vulnerable to ending their lives through the practice if it becomes law.
The Barrister, who served as a Commissioner with the Irish Human Rights Commission, from 2000-2011, was speaking before the Oireachtas Committee addressing the issue today, with the Committee also hearing viewpoints from Northern Ireland Humanists and campaign group Dignity in Dying.
Mr Binchy, who has been a Regius Professor of Laws at Trinity College Dublin since 1992, said it was his “firm view” that introducing physician-assisted suicide would “breach the respect for the value of human life in a deep way” and would have damaging consequences for children, the aged, the infirm, and people with mental disabilities.
In his opening remarks, the barrister expressed concern that people who are “old and physically frail” may be concerned that “they are becoming a burden on their families and feel that, with physician-assisted suicide lawful – possibly practised by their own doctor – it might to appropriate for them to end their lives.”
The lawyer, who has been involved in human rights, law reform, and legal practise as a barrister and academic, said that the legal provision of assistance in taking life “is one that challenged the foundations of the value system” on which our society has been based for milenia.
“That value system is founded on the premise that humans have an inherent worth and dignity, which we all have a corresponding obligation to respect,” he wrote.
A law that incorporates this foundational value, if put into practice in society, gives us the protection that we need.”
“If a person takes his or her own life, this is not simply a private matter. It resonates through society, deeply affecting family members and friends, and having indirect effects on others,” Mr Binchy said.
“We respect people’s autonomy, but we appreciate that the right to autonomy has definite limits. It should not be exercised in a way that damages the rights and interests of others.
“Physician-assisted suicide has been shown to have such damaging effects. In practice, it involves a profound transformation in medical practice. Doctors become involved in taking life intentionally, contrary to their mission of healing or, where healing is not possible, making the patient as comfortable as possible.”
“Society is not some empty abstraction. It is the cumulative experience of countless generations of flesh-and-blood people around the world. The sound judgement of society for millennia has been that we should protect life by not introducing a law of this kind,” he added.
Mr Binchy, who is the brother of the late novelist Maeve Binchy, said his concern extended further, and that while “laws may change,” human nature does not.
“People who are old and physically frail may be concerned that they are becoming a burden on their families and feel that, with physician-assisted suicide lawful –possibly practised by their own doctor – it might to appropriate for them to end their lives,” he said.
“We should protect life by not introducing a law of this kind,” he told the Committee during Tuesday’s meeting.
He said that while “we respect people’s autonomy” we appreciate that the right to autonomy has “definite limits.”
“It should not be exercised in a way that damages the rights and interests of others,” he said, adding: “Physician-assisted suicide has been shown to have such damaging effects.”
“In practice, it involves a profound transformation in medical practice. Doctors become involved in taking life intentionally, contrary to their mission of healing or, where healing is not possible, making the patient as comfortable as possible,” the barrister said.
He said that it has been argued that physician-assisted suicide should be allowed in cases where a patient wishes to die and is likely to “die imminently” from a terminal illness, and two justications are posited for this, one being autonomy and the other being the futility of continuing the patient’s life further.
The difficulty with this however, Mr Binchy said, is that, “if such a change is made, compelling arguments are likely to be made for extension to other cases.”
“Why should a patient with a terminal illness be required to wait until death is imminent? Why should there be a requirement of proof of a terminal illness?” he asked the committee, continuing: ”Indeed, why should proof of any illness be required?”
“If a person, in the exercise of his or her autonomy, wishes to end his or her life now, and physician-assisted suicide is to be lawful, what principled objection can there be to denying access to the means of ending life to one who finds life so unsatisfactory that he or she wishes to end it?”
He added that “further logical consequences follow.”
“A patient who wishes to die but who lacks the physical capacity to end his or her life would be given access to a health care professional who would provide assistance, by giving the patient a lethal product to consume,” he said.
“If, however, the autonomous patient lacked the capacity to self-ingest, the logic extends to entitling (or perhaps legally requiring) the health care professional to engage in active euthanasia. To deny this would be considered to distinguish between people by denying the exercise of autonomy on the basis of disability.”
Views were heard from Northern Ireland Humanists and Lloyd Riley is the Director of Policy and Research at Dignity in Dying, both of whom argued in favour of changing the law to allow for assisted suicide in Ireland.
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, which incorporates Northern Ireland Humanists, argued that individuals with neurological degenerative conditions “deserve a choice” in ending their lives as they “could potentially live for years in unnecessary pain or suffering” along with others with other incurable physical conditions.
“Austria, Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Colombia, Switzerland, and Spain have legalised assisted dying for both the terminally ill and incurably suffering. The Republic of Ireland could be the next country to give a compassionate choice to the people who are suffering,” Mr Copson said.
Meanwhile, Lloyd Riley of Dignity in Dying, a group which campaigns for the legalisation of assisted dying throughout the UK, said that assisted suicide would be a “compassionate” choice for Ireland.
“The most extreme policy position that you will hear today is the suggestion that you as legislators you should do nothing on assisted dying,” Mr Riley told TDs.
In a press release prior to Tuesday’s Committee hearing, Committee Cathaoirleach Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said: “In philosophy, autonomy is defined as the capacity of a person to act in accordance with objective morality to make informed decisions, rather than under the influence of external pressure or coercion.
“The moral and ethical arguments around such decision making, particularly regarding a topic as contentious and divisive as assisted dying, are complex and required detailed examination and debate,” adding that the Committee looked forward to hearing the views of stakeholders.
This article first appeared on Gript and is published here with permission
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