Warning of ‘killing pain by killing patients’

An Irish palliative care specialist has told the High Court he supports the total ban on assisted suicide here and believes it would be “entirely radical” for doctors “to try and kill pain by killing patients”.

Dr Tony O’Brien said the ban makes the situation clear for doctors and he feared its removal could result in vulnerable people opting to have their lives ended only so as not to be a burden on others. It was “quite impossible” to devise safeguards to protect such people.

A UK palliative care specialist, Prof Rob George, said offering the option of interfering in the dying process through assisted suicide “completely reclassifies the role of medicine” and “changes society fundamentally” as it involved reclassifying the intentional ending of a person’s life, at their request, as “a societally mandated good”.

This led to a “slippery slope” as in the Netherlands, where what started as voluntary euthanasia later became involuntary for those without capacity on grounds it was in their best interests.

In Britain, among the most vocal opponents of assisted suicide were disability groups which believe it involves making assumptions about their capacity and value when they are already at the receiving end of assumptions concerning their disabilities, he added.

Both doctors were giving evidence on behalf of the State in the action by Marie Fleming, aged 58, from Co Wicklow challenging the ban on assisted suicide.

Yesterday, Dr O’Brien told Shane Murphy SC, for the State, he has 26 years experience with 30,000 dying or suffering patients, and believed Ms Fleming’s situation might be improved physically, emotionally, and spiritually via engagement with palliative services at the highest level here. Those services are available to all irrespective of their financial resources, he said.

From Ms Fleming’s evidence, he believed she had an inaccurate view of palliative care, including that it could not be provided at home, and he would like the chance to set out to her what was involved.

When Ronan Murphy SC, for Ms Fleming, said he was instructed she had availed of every palliative care option offered to her and had not refused any treatment, Dr O’Brien said he believed she might benefit by re-engaging with the palliative care services.

He rejected suggestions doctors involved in palliative care use drugs to shorten the lives of patients who are terminally ill and in severe pain. It was much easier to kill with paracetamol than morphine, he remarked.

When Mr Murphy suggested, with a view to easing a person’s suffering, doctors use drugs which they know will shorten life, Dr O’Brien said that does not happen. Confusion may arise in a situation where a person will die anyway, he added.

The case continues.


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