Shame on Queen’s to ban a lecture on assisted dying

It was very wrong of Queen’s to pull Australian Dr Philip Nitschke’s lecture on assisted dying. A university above all has a duty to promote free speech and is well able to provide a context for difficult subjects. What is there to fear from discussing it? Nitschke has had bad luck before, although his last ban was not in a university environment. One of the best debates I’ve ever heard was in the House of Lords three years ago, on the Joffe Bill on Assisted Dying, not quite the same as euthansia. Should all the peers have been gagged too or just the Bill’s supporters? One of that unsuccessful Bill’s key backers, the moral philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock whose famous report pioneered paved the way for IVF, goes further..”If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service. “I’m absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there’s a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they’re a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.”
Now 84, Lady Warnock isn’t speaking in detachment from her subject.

Just as the Joffe Bill was prompted by the Diana Pretty case, the current controversy has been promoted by another “DP” case, Debbie Purdy, this time, who had primary progressive MS diagnosed in 1995, and who is now confined to a wheelchair. Ms Purdy, 45, has said that when her condition becomes unbearable she hopes to end her life at a clinic in Switzerland or Belgium where assisted suicide is legal, but wants to know whether her husband will be prosecuted if he helps her. The English High Court has reserved judgment.

Apart from the very severely terminally ill like the two DPs, the problem of an ever growing number of the elderly demented won’t go away. The same applies to younger people who can be given early palliative care but not enough to save them from a slow and sometimes agonising death. How often have you heard that a much loved relative would be better dead? Is it wrong to say so out loud in respectful conditions? Opponents of assisted dying fear a slippery slope virtually to murder and indeed we can all see the problem. The elderly confused but still sentient must not live in terror of being murdered or feeling pressurised to take the briskly matter-of-fact Warnock line. If you’re confused, you can’t decide so you’re outside the ambit of any conceivable Bill.
The ban is a steep slippery slope to more fear and continuing ignorance.

One old informal and unspoken route to a merciful death has largely been removed. GPs who would have administered a little too much morphine are now understandably in the grip of the Shipman effect. That’s all the more reason why we need to debate every stage of the process of the care of the very ill. Shame on Queen’s for indulging the old familiar Ulster terror of a real life and death issue that lurks under the guise of piety.

  • Turgon

    I am not trying to be difficult but I know a bit about this case. Dr. Nitschke was invited to a private function being held by a medical ethics organisation. He was due to debate with a leading palliative care consultant who is also an authority on medical ethics. Some QUB medical students had been invited to the debate

    Dr. Nitschke who has apparently not practised medicine for a considerable time then announced to the press that he was coming to teach medical students etc.

    In view of what was seen as Dr. Nitschke’s self publication and the potential due to his comments for this to be seen as something it was not the ethics organisation in question withdrew the invitation. I believe Queen’s supported this. A number of politicians have also claimed credit for stopping Dr. Nitschke but in reality it was the ethics organisation who initially pulled the plug.

    I think the real shame here is on Dr. Nitschke for pretending the meeting was something other than that which it was, to the irritation of the ethics forum and QUB who then withdrew the invitation

    The issue of physician assisted suicide can be debated at length but Dr. Nitschke is really more a self publicist than anything else.

    Incidentally the concept of “double effect” that of causing death with say morphine is actually flawed. Relieving pain in terminally ill people with morphine etc. actually usually makes them live a bit longer as they become less exhausted. Clearly it also relieves their pain and makes them feel better.

  • Brian Walker

    From what you say, it seems the organisation of the event was pretty flawed. The organisers should have been clear what the terms of engagement were. If Nitchke abused the terms of engagement they should say so clearly, adding that they didn’t want detailed instructions on how to use drugs and how to obtain them to be disseminated, if that;s what they were afraid of. They could have asked him again on that basis and if he refused then pull the event and explain the reasons. I’d also like to know what he has to say; he’s being accused and hasn’t replied. Finally the Ethics body should quickly convene another meeting to discuss the subject. The free speech issue isn’t trivial, it needs to be worked through, now that the affair is out in the open.

  • Turgon

    Brian, My understanding is that they tried on a number of occassions to contact Dr. Nitschke following his claims to the media. They tried this without success. Then they pulled the plug when he would not even answer their calls.

    I am sure they do want a debate and I believe they hope to have one. I think, however, they did not want to become part of a circus which Dr. Nitschke seems to have created.

    Maybe they were naive to trust Dr. Nitschke to debate etc. rather than play games and use them as a platform to claim that they asked him to come to lecture students.

  • abucs
  • Danny O’Connor

    If this is made acceptable it will open all sorts of serious issues.Will it be ok for the state to withold treatment on economic grounds-the money could be spent on those who would have a better quality of life.Once the concession is made to these so called doctors(I thought doctors were supposed to save lives)-that human life is not a right ,but a value judgement,people with differing outlooks will make differing judgements.

    Just think if the state could “euthanise”people so that we would all pay less tax and remove the pension crisis,who among you is naive enough to say they wouldn’t ,and given that greed produces the worst in society-it might even be popular.

  • joeCanuck

    I think you’ve been watching too many horror movies, Danny.

  • Yvette Doll

    I’ve a case at the mo, got to get operation in Budapest, because, Brits don’t pay for vulnerable sector,

    Sir Reg was in the Telly with the same kid, a while back, also on UTV

    (it’ll be on TV, the new op thing soon, so there is no need for the sluggers to grass me up to Niccy for leaks of confidential child health info)

    so one could campaign for X, or knowing the NHS, it may be cheaper and easier to simply raise cash and pay. It is depressing.

    It is not NI, over the water now, is said child, so one can’t speak to anybody I was delivering leaflets in SB for.

    What the heck, this kid, lovely wee lad, needs op, gotta get it sorted for him in Britain.

    So if you see me jumping out of a plane dressed as Bob the Builder or anything, you’ll know why.


    Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey, who has been supporting the Johnstones in their fight for a new wheelchair, along with his colleague Esmond Birnie, said he was very pleased for the family.

    “When I met Keiran and his mother up in Stormont the wheelchair he had was in pretty bad shape, it was not fit for a child in his condition,” he said.

    “I think this new chair will give him a new lease on life. I also must say that his mother has sacrificed a lot to campaign for this new chair. I take my hat off to her for all the effort she has put in to get what her child deserves.”

  • Regular Commenter

    My mother has told me that if she should contract Alzheimers, I should arrange for her to be killed. She bases this on the experience of what happened with her own mother, both in terms of what it did to her mother, and what it did to her family. Obviously I hope such a moment never arrives, but it highlights for me the gravity of the moral dilemma here.

    That said, I think that both euthanasia and assisted dying are dubious terms. The first means, at root, ‘good death’. But the very fact that we die is what enables us to judge if something is good or not. There can not be anything good about death. Similarly: assisted dying. No-one needs assistance to die. In fact, it’s the one thing we are all capable of.

    Assisted suicide or mercy killing I can live with. They are both horrific terms, but they at least explicitly recognise that we are actually killing someone. Euthanasia and assisted dying are means of hiding behind that fact.

  • miss fitz

    I don’t have access to research on this, but as someone who worked in a Hospice many years ago, I dispute from experience the idea that morphine cannot be used to expedite death. Indeed, the term used to be ‘snowing’, meaning that as the morphine was increased, things became a lot more blurry a lot more quickly.

    Morphine depresses the respiratory centre in the brain, and slows breathing. This can have several imapacts on an idividual, but prolonging life is generally not one.

    I guess I should hasten to add that I worked in a Hospice in the late 1970’s, and many of those practices are now outlawed. Personally, as someone who has dealt in terminal illness for many years, as well as with Alzheimer’s, I believe in the right of an individual to decide when to call it a day.

    I pray very sincerely that I am not left in a position of not knowing who I am or who my children (or sons-in-law)are. I pray that I am not left incontinent, confused, dirty, unkempt and with no idea of my loss of dignity.

    I have a fairly certain idea of when I would like to have an assisted suicide in the case of dementia. On the other hand, if I was contract a cancer illness, I would have no problem seeing that to the end, because I should be able to remain in control of my faculties. But I wont be refusing too much morphine along the way either.