An anti-euthanasia group in the UK is calling for the continuation of laws against assisted suicide, as the family of an elderly woman acquitted of murdering her husband wants the laws relaxed.
“It is sad to see this case being used to try and justify a campaign to rip up long held universal protections, by treating those who are terminally ill, disabled, or have chronic conditions differently in law,” said Dr. Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of Care Not Killing.
“We know from the handful of places that have made such a change vulnerable people often feel pressured into ending lives prematurely.”
A jury cleared Mavis Eccleston, 80, of the murder and manslaughter of her husband Dennis, 81, in September, the BBC reports.
Mavis was accused of giving her husband a lethal dose of prescription medicine without his knowledge in a February “mercy killing.”
The Suicide Act 1961 makes it illegal to encourage or assist a death in England and Wales, the BBC reports. In 2015 the U.K. parliament rejected a bill that would have legalized assisted suicide for patients with a terminal diagnosis.
Mavis told jurors that she and her husband had both intended to take their lives with the medication, and that they had decided to do so after Dennis’ diagnosis of terminal cancer.
The couple was found in their apartment by family members on Feb. 19, 2018, after they had taken the drugs. The couple was rushed to the hospital and given an antidote to the medication. Mavis survived; Dennis did not.
The couple's daughter Joy Munns said her mother “should never have been charged with murder,” and is calling for a change in the UK’s so-called assisted dying laws.
“My dad wanted to die at home with his family around him. He wanted to go and not suffer the pain that he did,” Munns told the BBC.
Other countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada have legalized assisted suicide, and Macdonald notes that negative effects of these legal decisions are already being demonstrated there.
In Canada, he said, which only changed the law in 2016, improvements to palliative medicine have not materialized, courts have extended assisted suicide to those with chronic conditions that are not terminal, and some patients are denied medical care and instead offered lethal drugs.
He also highlighted the case of a Belgian woman, Godelieva De Troyer, who was physically healthy but suffered from depression for a majority of her life and the Belgian state euthanized her in 2012 “without consulting either her son, or the psychiatrist who had cared for her for more than 20 years.”
A Belgian report on euthanasia in 2016-17 suggests that an estimated six people are euthanized daily in the country, where the practice has been legal since 2002.
“In the Netherlands, there was a case of a 74-year-old who was suffering from Dementia who was killed in 2016. The doctor allegedly failed to verify that the woman wanted to end her life, sedated the woman and asked her family to hold her down as she administered the lethal drug,” Macdonald said.
“These cases and many others show how assisted dying laws are operating way beyond their original remit and how patients who are not mentally competent are being killed on a regular basis.”
According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, euthanasia could be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, while physician-assisted suicide carries with it a maximum punishment of 14 years imprisonment.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that suicide and cooperation in suicide are morally unacceptable, though it notes that: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
“Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable,” the Catechism states.
“Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded,” it adds.
The Eccleston case is similar to a 2017 case in which an English chemist was cleared after administering lethal drugs to his 85-year-old father, who had reportedly wanted to die. A judge at the time ruled that the chemist’s actions “were acts of pure compassion and mercy.”
A terminally ill man, Noel Conway, who wanted a doctor to be able to prescribe him a lethal dose, challenged the Suicide Act 1961 in High Court in 2017, but his case was dismissed.