Debbie Purdy, the terminal MS patient, is rejoicing at her success with the Law Lords yesterday. It must be right that the DPP should be asked to clarify his policy on prosecuting those who help terminally-ill patients to die. It is one thing to say “Ignorance of the law is no excuse”, but quite another to say “We’re not going to clarify this for you. Go ahead and try it, then wait to see whether we prosecute you”.
It is good governance to ensure that concerned citizens who wish to know their legal rights and duties should be able to find out what they are. It is also good governance to avoid a situation where a law is on the statute book, yet everyone knows that it is never invoked or enforced. Such a situation brings the law into contempt.
The question of whether assisted suicide should be legal in certain circumstances, or whether it should be legal to assist a patient to travel to another jurisdiction where assisted suicide is legal, is fraught with the baggage of religious dogma and entrenched moral positions, but let me venture into the debate anyway.
I believe that the state should permit (or rather, not claim the right to proscribe) assisted suicide. There are two principle reasons. First, the decision is essentially a personal one which (generally speaking) does not harm others. I believe that in a democratic society, such decisions should be left to the individual. This does not mean that parliamentarians would give moral approbation or endorsement to the act. They may well consider it immoral, or indeed sinful. But they do not (in my submission) have the right to impose their own moral precepts on others. There is a parallel here with abortion: I take the view that an abortion is nearly always a tragedy for those involved, but I do not believe that it is my job as a parliamentarian to make moral choices on behalf of my constituents. They must decide for themselves.
The second line of argument is perhaps rather pedantic (as you might expect from a mathematician), but nonetheless valid. It is a commonplace to agree that we have a right to life (and leave aside, for this purpose, the question of whether we sacrifice our own right to life if we disregard that right for others — the capital punishment question). Logically, however, a right to life necessarily implies a right to die. If you tell me I have a right to life but no right to die, then clearly I have not a right to life, but a duty and an obligation to live on, however onerous or painful that may be. The right to life implies a choice, and the alternative to choosing life is to choose to die.
Much of the opposition to a Right-to-Die is centred on the “Slippery Slope” argument. The right to die will merge imperceptibly into a duty to die. Those who are reluctant to exercise their right to die will be subject to moral blackmail, for imposing costs and duties on relatives and carers, or for “bed-blocking” in hospitals and hospices. Shouldn’t we instead put more investment and research into palliative medicine (they ask), to ensure that our last days are tolerable?
The “palliative medicine” argument is soon dealt with. If an elderly or sick person has decided that they have nothing further to live for, then the promise of being drugged to the eye-balls may not prove to be an attractive alternative. Of course pain relief should be available for those who choose that route, but the availability of analgesia should not be a barrier to those who choose otherwise. Again, we see politicians and medical people — yes, and religious leaders — trying to take away the right of the patient to make a free choice.
On the slippery slope argument, we are really saying that a Right-to-Die policy may present administrative problems, and difficulties of implementation. But name me any area of public policy which does not present such problems. The solution is not to abandon the policy area and cease the activity. The solution is to administer it better.
This is an area where it is invidious to seek to make decisions on behalf of others (which is precisely the reason I call for a Right-to-Die, because the State should not be making this fundamental decision for the citizen). But I can at least express a view on my own behalf. I can well imagine circumstances where due to age and ill-health I might feel that I wanted to call it a day, and shuffle off this mortal coil. And I should be hopping mad if the State came along and told me that I could not do so.
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