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Opinion

Coronavirus measures underline the importance of protecting the vulnerable

Opinion

All over the world, we have seen an unparalleled societal response to Covid-19 - one that was scarcely imaginable just weeks ago. Individuals worldwide have largely accepted unprecedented restrictions on their freedom, and governments have committed eye-watering sums to keeping the economy afloat in the meantime. 
 
As the scale of the crisis became clearer, we saw a narrative in which it would "only" affect the elderly and otherwise vulnerable give way to strong pushback focused on protecting those at greater risk.
 
In the midst of this vulnerability debate, an underreported story broke earlier this month that the Royal College of Physicians had been forced to "clarify" its position on assisted suicide after a legal challenge was initiated by a group of member doctors. The RCP had held a poll on the issue last year that enraged doctors who felt that the College had been captured by lobbyists and considered the exercise to be a "sham". 
 
Despite the poll revealing the largest share of respondents remained opposed to a change in the law (with only 25% indicating they would be willing to actively participate in assisted suicide) the RCP adopted a "neutral" position on the issue. The result was predictable: a wellspring of media coverage, even submissions in court, casting the development as the RCP "dropping" its longstanding opposition and therefore supporting a change in the law. 
 
For many doctors dedicated to saving lives, the thought of actively supporting assisted suicide is unthinkable given the mere existence of legalisation can exert immense pressure on elderly and disabled patients. One only need look to Belgium and the Netherlands, where the numbers of euthanasia deaths rise year-on-year, to realise that a change in the law comes at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.
 
After the High Court gave a green light to the case against the RCP moving forwards, the parties struck a settlement where the College explicitly clarified that it did not support a change in the law. This was welcomed by the doctors involved, who from the beginning argued that the College can best use its considerable voice to champion key concerns such as the protection of vulnerable patients, and the promotion of palliative care and hospice services. 
 
We tend to pay more attention when things come closer to home. A virus that appears to more seriously impact the elderly and otherwise vulnerable is less readily dismissed by those in better heath when they consider their parents or grandparents. Similarly, when we start to look at the RCP poll more closely, we find that among palliative care doctors - perhaps those who know suffering and end of life better than most - 84% opposed the legalisation of assisted suicide.
 
In these tumultuous times, the response to Covid-19 has shown much of the best of humanity, particularly in the way that communities around the world have supported and cared for the vulnerable. In the aftermath of the pandemic, one can only hope that we do not lose this crucial perspective.
 
Robert Clarke is a barrister and Deputy Director of Advocacy at ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organisation 
 

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