End-of-life specialist argues against assisted dying
The palliative care profession has also expressed concerns about changing the law to allow assisted dying. Here’s Baroness Ilora Finlay, who is a professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University and has taught end-of-life care internationally...
Ilora - I think it's very worrying to hear about people who are frightened and who see the situation as hopeless, when actually we need to be redoubling efforts to relieve distress. We need to be looking at new ways of managing things. But shortening life, cutting life off, isn't the answer to managing distress.
James - Some people are experiencing pain even the best palliative care is unable to alleviate though, aren't they? I mean, Jenny says of her memories of her husband's care at their hospice, 'We had amazing palliative care help, but there were things they could not do.'
Ilora - I think, when you look at what has happened in other countries that have changed the law on this, you find that there isn't less pain. In fact, the evidence is that the symptom control of unrelieved symptoms is worse, and I think it becomes dangerously easy to think that death is a shortcut rather than actually saying, 'let's look again, what else should we be doing?' When you look at the data from Canada, it shows that the percentage of people who are accessing palliative care has dropped over time. Euthanasia has become normalised, so they get euthanasia, but they're not getting the palliative care options, and actually we don't even know what the quality of palliative care is overall.
James - Another element of this debate is, if you decide assisted dying should be legal in instances where a person is in severe, seemingly untreatable pain, why draw a distinction between people for whom the prognosis is terminal and for those who aren't? I'm thinking of something like severe depression, for example. Legal lines have to be drawn somewhere, and you are of the opinion that where the current law lies in this country is, on balance, for the best.
Ilora - The difficulty is that you can't predict prognosis. Anyone who pretends that they can say someone has a prognosis of six months, they're just guessing. You can't predict how long someone has to live. Some people die much more quickly, others live remarkably much longer. The other thing is that different diseases and disease conditions change and move on. But yes, you are right, there are people with long term, severe chronic pain, and it may take some years for them to adapt. The person who's been in a terrible accident, lost limbs, it may take a long time for them to find a new way of moving forwards. But what you have to ask yourself is 'what's society's duty to people?' Are we there to support people and help them through? Or are we saying, 'well, you are in despair and we'll give up on you,' basically? Or are we saying that we want to support you? If you look at the instance of suicides and look at Victoria, people thought that when they changed the law, it would decrease the number. Actually, that isn't what's happened. The data shows that their unassisted suicide rate has approximately doubled. So something changes in society, but to see death as an answer to fear really seems a very dangerous route to go down.
James - Is there anything that our listeners should be aware of that's happening in the world of palliative care to help alleviate the concerns of people who either have a terminal illness, or know people who have one, that their death will be as dignified as possible?
Ilora - There's research and there are advances in palliative care, but there are also across the whole of medicine with new treatments and new ways of managing conditions, and some of those have really revolutionised conditions. But the other thing that people need to be aware of is that ending life is not simple. The drugs that are used have not been approved anywhere. People don't actually know how they work. Some of the ones used in euthanasia, in about two thirds of cases, the person's completely paralysed so they can't breathe. They die of asphyxia. This is not straightforward. And the complication rate when the drugs are taken for assisted suicide has been up at 11% in the last 12 years in the data from Oregon. So this isn't straightforward. It isn't taking one little pill and it's all over quickly. It actually can be pretty complicated and pretty awful, and we don't even know how this cocktail of drugs that's used is really working and what they're doing and nobody has researched them properly.