empty hospital beds on a ward

Let’s save our doctors from the pressure to kill their patients

7th May 2019 - Nigel Cameron

Every few years, people who believe that doctors should kill patients try another effort at making it legal.

Of course, they don’t call it the “Let Doctors Kill Patients Act.”

They call it “Physician-assisted suicide.” Or “Assisted dying.”

And they don’t just campaign in Parliament and the press. They know that medical opinion is important too. That’s why the recent decision by the Royal College of Physicians to take a “neutral” position on the debate has made euthanasia enthusiasts so happy – and caused the rest of us a lot of concern.

Let’s ask three key questions.

First, what really IS “assisted dying”? Second, why does it matter? Third, what’s likely to happen next?

But before that: a bit of perspective. The reason the Royal College shift is so disturbing is that pretty much the entire medical profession for hundreds and hundreds of years – all the way back to Hippocrates, the famous founder of the medical profession back around 400 BC – has been absolutely opposed to “euthanasia” in every form. And remember: until quite recently there was not much that doctors could do when someone was chronically or terminally ill. No real anaesthesia until the mid-19th century. No antibiotics until the 20th. And pain medications were primitive. The temptation to kill the patient – oops, to “aid” in the patient’s dying – must have been very strong. Yet the docs said no.

Let’s think about that for a minute, and there’s no better way than to go back to Hippocrates himself. No one quite knows if he wrote the famous Hippocratic Oath, or if that was his students. Either way, the Oath put into pithy words some of the great principles of ethical medicine. And one of them was: no “aid in dying” for patients, nor even suggesting that they be “aided” in the process. If you’d like to know a bit more about him read this piece I was asked to write to welcome the new UK medical site Hippocratic Post when it opened back in 2016.

You see, Hippocrates wasn’t just a wonderful doctor; he understood something basic about human nature. When people are sick, elderly, injured – when they need the help of a doctor and it’s really serious – you have to draw a bright line. Do everything you can to help patients, said Dr. Hippocrates. But don’t even think about “helping” them by killing them.

Hippocrates refused to cross that line, and there’s no better illustration of how important that has been than in a quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Margaret Mead was one of the most influential thinkers of the first part of the 20th century, and her approach was “liberal,” “progressive,” and secular. That makes her respect for Hippocrates all the more powerful.

Here’s what she had to say. “For the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing.” Unlike the shamans and others in primitive societies, who could kill as well as cure, “One profession … were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age, or intellect – the life of a slave, the life of the Emperor, the life of a foreign man, the life of a defective child . . ..” And she goes on: “But society always is attempting to make the physician into a killer – to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of the cancer patient.”  I used it at the start of my book on Hippocrates, The New Medicine, where you can read more about what she said.

Next, our three quick questions.

  1. What is “aid in dying” or “assisted dying” or “assisted suicide” all about? These are all clever phrases to avoid the word euthanasia. And that word – a made-up word from the 19th century – is another soft term for a hard thing. The hard thing is killing. For a doctor – or anyone else – to do something intended to bring about a patient’s death (whatever his or her motives, and even if the patient has asked) in most countries is homicide. Let’s call a spade a spade. We can start by putting quotation marks round “aid in dying” and the other terms being used to market the act of killing patients every time we use them.

  2. Why does it matter? If someone wants to die, who are we to stand in their way? Margaret Mead put it like this: “it is the duty of society to protect the physician from such requests.”  People in pain, maybe depressed, not wanting to be a burden to their children and carers, will often be tempted to want to die. It’s our responsibility to assure them that they are very much wanted, and to give them the best love and care we can. Not to say, OK gran, let’s get it over with. What’s more, one you start, where do you stop? Many depressed people who aren’t otherwise ill at all think about dying, and some try to kill themselves. Instead of trying to stop them, should we really be helping them end it all? And of course let’s not forget that killing people who are sick can save an enormous amount of money. Once we start down that path . . . .

  3. What’s next? Someone may try and use a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament, or some other strategy – way back the House of Lords had a Select Committee that looked into euthanasia (and decided firmly against). But the debate is moving on, and in our families and churches and schools and colleges and workplaces people are talking. We need to tell them that the answer isn’t killing – it’s better medicine, better care, more love.

If we’re Christians, we know that life is sacred because we’re made in God’s image. But the sanctity of life isn’t just for Christians. Hippocrates wasn’t a Christian, but he was absolutely committed to the life of his patients. And neither was Margaret Mead! But as she put it, we need to protect our doctors, Hippocrates’ successors, from the pressure to become killers.

Nigel Cameron is a consultant for CARE and President Emeritus, Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington, DC. He is also the former Technology Editor for UnHerd.com

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