Social work and end-of-life care

Social work is important in end-of-life care

Professional assistance with suicide is different from help by relatives: Supreme Court commentary

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Is someone who assists a suicide different from the person who chooses to commit suicide? This question is answered comprehensively by Lord Sumption, in the summer Supreme Court judgment on assisted dying, that I am reviewing in this linked series of posts. I looked last time at why assisted suicide is considered a crime.

This is of particular interest to social workers, because it looks at situations where someone may be vulnerable or at risk of abuse, possibly pressurising them into agreeing to suicide because, among other things, they feel themselves to be a burden to their family. Any experienced palliative care social worker ‘s can tell you of examples where the family feels it cannot cope with a dying or sick person’s care and either explicitly want their relative to die, or make them feel that that’s what they think. Indeed, Lond Sumption quotes the British Association of Social Workers (he gets the title wrong), alongside the British Geriatrics Society and Action on Elder Abuse (also getting the title wrong),  as a ‘reputable body of experienced opinion’. I’ve edited this very lengthy section of the judgment, but you can see the main points made:

215. …There are at least three reasons why the moral position of the suicide…is different from that of a third party who helps him to kill himself. In the first place, the moral quality of their decisions is different. A desire to die can only result from an overpowering negative impulse arising from perceived incapacity, failure or pain. This is an extreme state which is unlikely to be shared by the third party who assists. Even if the assister is moved by pure compassion, he inevitably has a greater degree of detachment. This must in particular be true of professionals such as doctors, from whom a high degree of professional objectivity is expected, even in situations of great emotional difficulty. Secondly, whatever right a person may have to put an end to his own life depends on the principle of autonomy, which leaves the disposal of his life to him. The right of a third party to assist cannot depend on that principle. It is essentially based on the mitigating effect of his compassionate motive. Yet not everyone seeking to end his life is equally deserving of compassion. The choice made by a person to kill himself is morally the same whether he does it because he is old or terminally ill, or because he is young and healthy but fed up with life. In both cases his desire to commit suicide may be equally justified by his autonomy. But the choice made by a third party who intervenes to help him is very different. The element of compassion is much stronger in the former category than in the latter. Third, the involvement of a third party raises the problem of the effect on other vulnerable people, which the unaided suicide does not. If it is lawful for a third party to encourage or assist the suicide of a person who has chosen death with a clear head, free of external pressures, the potential arises for him to encourage or assist others who are in a less good position to decide. Again, this is a more significant factor in the case of professionals, such as doctors or carers, who encounter these dilemmas regularly, than it is in the case of, say, family members confronting them for what will probably be the only time in their lives.
225. It is inconclusive factually, for reasons which emerge very clearly from the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying. The only jurisdictions with experience of legalised assisted suicide are certain states of the United States, of which the most important is Oregon, and the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. The data from these sources is contested and acknowledged to be of variable robustness. It is also sensitive to underlying conditions such as standards of education, the existence of long-term relationships between GPs and patients and other social and cultural factors, which are not necessarily replicated in the United Kingdom. Indeed, there may well be significant regional and sociological variations within the United Kingdom. It is plain from the expert evidence reviewed by the Commission that there is a diversity of opinion about the degree of risk involved in relaxing or qualifying the ban on assisted suicide, but not about its existence. The risk exists and no one appears to regard it as insignificant…
226. The concept of “abuse” embraces at least two distinct problems. One is that the boundary between assisted suicide and euthanasia is so porous that in practice it may be crossed too often, sometimes even in cases where there was no true consent. The other is the risk that that if assisted suicide were lawful, some people would be too ready to bring an end to their lives under real or perceived pressure from others.

Lond Sumption goes on to say whether the guidance on whether an assister who is a professional should be prosecuted issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions can be clarified further, which one of the people appealing wanted:

247. [One issue is]… the significance of compassion, which everyone agrees is critical in most of these cases. In the case of a close family member, for example a parent, child or spouse, the compassionate character of his or her motivation will usually be obvious, even if the assister stood to benefit financially by the patient’s death. …What constitutes a purely compassionate motive in the case of an outsider is likely to be much less obvious. At one extreme, the professional who assists the patient to kill himself may be a long-term living in-carer who has formed an emotional bond with the patient not unlike that of his closest relatives. At the opposite end of the range, the professional may have little or no personal acquaintance with the patient, but out of compassion for human suffering in general holds himself out as being ready to assist patients who have freely chosen suicide. Between these extremes there is an infinitely complex range of possibilities. The position of the professional is likely to be affected by his closeness to the patient, the length of his acquaintance with him, the extent of his previous responsibility for the patient’s care, his relations with the patient’s family, his opinions about the legal prohibition of assisted suicide, any relevant rules or guidance of his professional body, any involvement on his part in assisting other patients to commit suicide, whether he is paid for his assistance and if so how much, and many other matters. …It is neither possible nor proper [for the Director of Public Prosecutions] to attempt a precise statement in advance of the facts about when a professional will or will not be prosecuted. Either such a statement will have to be so general and qualified as to be of limited value for predictive purposes, or else it is liable to tie the Director’s hands in a way that would in practice amount to a dispensation from the law.

All of which makes it clear that a professional such as a social worker cannot really seek the same kind of protection from the law as a family member who assists someone to die.


Written by Malcolm Payne

26 September 2014 at 11:32 am

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