HAYES IN THE HOUSE: By MP John Hayes
Written in the fifth century BC, the Hippocratic Oath –named after its presumed author, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates– has been a defining text of Western medicine. Though there is no longer a requirement for newly qualified doctors to swear this ancient oath, it is still widely regarded by medical professionals and patients alike as a definitive ethical credo.
This potential for abuse is frightening, taking us down the sinister path that humanity has previously travelled in its darkest days
The oath’s timeless principles include a commitment to do no harm, to guarantee patient confidentiality, and a solemn promise “not give a drug that is deadly to anyone if asked, nor suggest the way to such a counsel.”
Mindful of these enduring values, the latter most particularly, last week I opposed the Bill to legalise assisted suicide. As I did so, in the public gallery disabled people, there for the debate, waited anxiously. Afterwards – as MPs opposed the awful prospect of euthanasia – one severely disabled lady said “at least I’m safe for a while.”
I care most about standing up for those whose vulnerability means they need our protection; and it is the most vulnerable people in our society who would be threatened the most by a change in the law, with unbearable pressure placed on the elderly, the seriously disabled, and those with serious depression to end their lives from a fear of being a burden. This potential for abuse is frightening, taking us down the sinister path that humanity has previously travelled in its darkest days.
The present situation is unambiguous; assisting suicide is illegal, with strong penalties which act as a deterrent. Plans to bring in euthanasia by another name have been rejected by Parliament several times in recent years. The Royal Colleges of Physicians, General Practitioners, and the British Medical Association all oppose assisted suicide becoming legal, with 6 in 7 GPs saying that they would not want to be involved in a process which is opposed by all of the major disability groups in Britain.
Despite some sensationalist coverage, the number of British people travelling abroad to commit suicide is very small indeed (an average of 21 people per year, over the past 13 years). By contrast, if Britain adopted the law used in the American state of Oregon –used as the model for the Private Members Bill- it would equate to over 1,500 assisted suicide deaths a year here!
Instead we must work harder to ensure people are cared for properly; that those who need support get it; and that we make further advances in already excellent palliative and hospice care.
As we fight an assault on human dignity which is disguised by the language of compassion, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of the timeless values to which Hippocrates lent his name over 2,000 years ago. The sanctity of innocent lives is inviolable, then and now.