People with opposing views on legalising the right to die agree palliative care is inadequate. We need to build on this common ground
Brigit Forsyth, the actor best know as Thelma in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is currently playing a terminally ill musician on stage. Her character in Killing Time says she’s a “prime candidate for a one-way trip to Switzerland”. Forsyth has disclosed that her GP grandfather helped dying patients end their lives and that she is in favour of euthanasia. Her comments are the latest in a long line of opinions on legalised assisted dying reported in the press, which has a habit of oversimplifying the complex arguments for and against. And this seems to be damaging our ability to hold meaningful public debate on the subject.
With this in mind, a study funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation sought the views of people with strongly opposed opinions on the matter. Participants in both groups included people with palliative care backgrounds, older and disabled people, those from organisations concerned with care and support and individuals from academic, social work and policy backgrounds.
What emerged is a surprising amount of common ground. People with apparently polarised views on legalising the right to die often shared areas of interest and concern. It is these areas that should form the basis for further public discussion, argues the report, Assisted Dying: Developing the Debate, which is published on Wednesday by the Shaping Our Lives network of user-led groups, service users and disabled people.
Shared concerns included clear agreement that palliative care for terminally ill people is inadequate. Whether for or against assisted dying, participants showed a willingness to discuss quality of life for terminally ill people, the value placed on good-quality care, and how to invest in and provide access to this care in the face of economic inequality.
Participants recognised that the debate on legalising assisted dying was taking place in an unequal society: we often place lower social value on older, sick, and disabled people. The research identified a willingness to discuss prevailing societal values, including the concept of “being a burden” on society; the value society placed on social care and support work; and our social attitudes towards death and dying. “How should assisted dying be funded?”, “Where should it be performed?”, and “What methods and means of self-administering a fatal dose should be used?”, were just some of the common questions raised.
Despite disagreement about the extent to which detailed processes and safeguards should be included in assisted dying legislation, participants from across the spectrum of opinion generally agreed that the “how” questions were not being discussed in enough depth.
Areas of shared understanding also emerged when respondents discussed ethical and existential ideas around death and dying, including the psychological aspects of pain and suffering, both for individuals and their loved ones. “All participants had a wish to find the best way forward with compassion for people who are terminally ill, regardless of being for or against legalising assisted dying,” the report concludes.
The study shows that the issues are far more complex than much of the public debate has so far allowed. Death and dying is a core issue for human beings, and public debate must reflect this. It is time to embrace the personal, social, policy and ethical issues that participants have highlighted.
Back in the theatre, Forsyth’s dying musician is visited by a young carer (Zoe Mills) who feels it is her duty to help put older people out of their misery. According to the reviews, she comes to realise that life and death is more nuanced.
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