To assist – or not to assist?

Pro-assisted suicide supporters and anti-assisted suicide supporters rally outside the BC Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday March 4, 2013, The Federal Government appeals a B.C. Supreme Court decision that struck down Canada's ban on assisted suicide. Through March 8, Rallies are organized outside Supreme Court for Carter vs Canada.   Photo By CARMINE MARINELLI/Vancouver 24hrs/QMI AGENCY

The recent debate, and Commons vote, on assisted suicide, has been fascinating, not least because we seem to see a dichotomy between the views of the public – who broadly favour relaxing the law – and the MPs, who do not.

The arguments have been rehearsed repeatedly.  There are the high-profile cases of terminally ill patients, undergoing untold suffering, who just want release, and who command the sympathy of the public — and of the tabloids.  There are the families that assist, and are uncertain of their legal position, or were until Keir Stramer clarified it.  There are those who take themselves off to Dignitas, in Switzerland, where they are allowed to do what may not be done at home.  There are the concerns of doctors, who are supposed first to “do no harm”, and of hospices, who fear that assisted suicide could undermine their business model.

And there are those who approach the question from a moral or religious perspective, and invoke God-given rules to deny relief to those who seek death — though it is interesting that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, opposes assisted suicide while his predecessor Lord Carey disagrees.

Perhaps the highest profile argument against assisted suicide is that it may create pressure on elderly people, who feel they are a burden to their families, to opt for assisted suicide before they’re ready.

The various declarations and conventions on human rights to which we appear to be signatories are not much help either.  We have a “Right to Life” – though there’s not much we can do about our Right to Life if we fall under a truck.  But does a Right to Life not logically imply also a right to die?  If not, the Right to Life becomes not a right but an obligation, as many with terminal illnesses have found.  And then we have (apparently) a “Right to Human Dignity”, which can be argued to be a right not to undergo a prolonged, painful and undignified demise.  Take your pick.

I come at it from a different angle – a libertarian angle (and I know I am on delicate ground here, since many who support UKIP might take a more traditional view of this matter).  But never mind.  I believe that wherever possible, moral choices should be left to adults, with the usual caveats of free choice and sound mind.  MPs may hold their own views, but in my opinion they have no business imposing that view on others.  It is my choice (or should be) if I want to end my life, not theirs.

I would apply similar arguments to other moral choices.  Take hunting.  There are strongly-held views on both sides on whether hunting is (A) humane and (B) moral (I believe it is both).  But I think these moral choices should be left to individuals.  If you think hunting is wrong, don’t do it, but don’t stop others doing it.

I would also be wary about legislating on abortion, because that’s a moral choice for the mother concerned.  The position is rather more complicated with abortion because of the rights of the unborn child.  There are those who argue that a human being exists, and has rights, from the moment of conception.  Others – and I sympathise with them – would argue that an egg is not a chicken, and an acorn is not an oak tree.  That leaves us with the dilemma of the stage at which an unborn child should acquire rights, but it seems to me that our current judgement around the stage of viability makes sense.  I am uncomfortable about the late-term abortions that I understand take place in the USA.

So I would have voted in favour of assisted suicide, and I would say to those who disagree “If you think it’s wrong, don’t do it.  But don’t seek to impose your moral judgements on those who think differently”.

Would it be abused?  Just about any area of human activity can be abused.  Cars can be used to rob banks.  Ministers of more than one religion have abused children.  But we don’t ban cars, or religion.  We just seek to put in place regulation which so far as possible prevents abuses, while seeking to balance the need for regulation against the freedom of choice of individuals.  That freedom of choice should of course apply equally to medical staff.  No doctor should be required to assist in a death if it is against their conscience.

In the end, it’s an intensely personal matter.  I hope I shall never reach a state where I should be looking for such a procedure, but if I were, I should be hugely angry and frustrated if it were denied me by a vote in the House of Commons.

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15 Responses to To assist – or not to assist?

  1. John Poynton says:

    As you say, the main fear seems to revolve around pressure on old people to go before they are ready. I take the libertarian view like you, but feel we should ensure that people can make this decision only if they can consult an independent advisor such as a solicitor, or similar procedure after consultation, free from family pressure.
    The hunting argument is more complex as it involves a wider community. UKIP supports the greater use of local referenda, and through the use of such a referendum a community, perhaps at county level, should be allowed to make such a decision even if the rest of the country disagrees. My only proviso would be that citizens outside the referendum boundary should have the opportunity to object in court on the grounds they are disadvantaged by the opt-out. That would then be determined on the basis of fact. Obviously you could not allow a local community to opt out of paying their taxes, for example!
    I was challenged on this during the election campaign by one man who asked me what UKIP would do about hunting. I said we would not change the national law but may allow the issue to be determined at local level. “So a bunch of rich people could start hunting again?”, he said. “I’m not voting for you then”, and ran off before I could query his commitment to democracy!

    • Flyinthesky says:

      I understand your first paragraph but solicitor? someone that you have to pay for an opinion.
      Government department? they’d build a massive and lucrative empire out of it.

      Doctors? we already have the anomaly that in order to register a death you have to pay £73-50 for a death certificate, if you wish your nearest and dearest to be cremated you have to pay two! £147-00. Why do you have to pay for this compulsory documentation, the practice may have had the benefit of the patients income for decades.

      The essence is this we know best attitude needs to be questioned, in such high profile cases these issues should be put to the people.

      The reality of representative democracy is it’s least worst option elected dictatorship.
      When in doubt ask, that’s never going to happen is it.

    • Brin Jenkins says:

      I saw the pressure applied to an old lady in Northern Greece in the 1970’s. The old lady owned the village shop and her sons wanted possession. Its surprising what family might do through greed.

  2. davidbuckingham says:

    I totally agree with your view on assisted suicide and the principles behind it – moral choices should be left to adults – the government has no right to interfere. Apart from the religious influence and as you aptly put it the assumption of a duty, responsibility or obligation to live at all costs, I think it is another example of the myth of determinism which justifies and informs most of the socialist/welfare/entitlement/nanny state agenda.

    If we are susceptible to forces beyond our control, ie victims of circumstance, we are logically unable to make our own objective, informed decisions and need to be protected from ourselves. (The argument avoids the point that this victimhood could not magically exclude government officials, so their judgment would be no better, but necessarily far worse, as their (distorted) ‘knowledge’ would be far less.)

    The killer argument for free will is that the determinist position is self-contradictory, as nobody could claim to know anything, including the idea that they are determined; their sourcing would always have to be blinkered, restricted, inevitably through the prism or veil of a pre-determined perception/mind. Ergo Free WIll Rules! The key distinction to un-blur is between being determined and being influenced. We’re all influenced but that cannot determine our decisions.

    With assisted suicide surely it cannot be that hard to create legal safeguards to protect the vulnerable from unscrupulous relatives, as in all other social activities. The priority should be with ensuring freedom of action for the vast majority of rational, reasonable people and circumstances, not criminalising someone for alleviating suffering. Super-precautionary legislation restricts freedoms by treating the whole of society as if it is the worst case and striving to guarantee the perfect state.

  3. afwheately says:

    I entirely agree – a nice balance.

    I would add that suicide is legal. So it seems to me illogical to make it illegal to assist someone to do what is legal. I appreciate it has to be clear that assisting suicide is not in fact murder, and so there has to be a procedure to establish that the the person who has died did want to die.

    It seems to me that all the time I am physically able to determine my own future I probably would not want to die, but once I am no longer so able a time will likely arise when I would wish to die, but that option will be denied me. So I can foresee a sort of cliff edge, both literally and metaphorically, where you are not ready to jump but are scared of leaving it too late.

    I am decidedly unimpressed by those who argue against any form of assisted dying on the grounds of a collection of circumstances where they claim the wrong thing may be done: they totally fail to take any account of the range of circumstance where the wrong thing is being done by denying the individual the right to choose when their life should be ended. Seems to me their so-called caring attitude is selective, and the high moral ground from which they like to think they preach to others what they shall and shall not do is very stony ground indeed.

  4. Jane Davies says:

    I worked in the NHS for more than twenty years in senior care. On many occasions a patient who was nearing the end was released from lingering in pain with a hefty dose of morphine administered by doctors, I’m sure it still happens.

    • Of course you’re right Jane. I have experience of that in my family. But is it right to expect medical staff to take upon themselves the responsibility for breaking the law as it stands?

      • Jane Davies says:

        No it’s not right, which is why the law needs to be changed. It’s already half way there with the DNR (do not resuscitate) which my sister and I along with our Dad agreed was put on my mother’s case notes in the last year of her life. Many patients have this added to their care plan either by their own decision or that of their advocates when quality of life is zero.

  5. Flyinthesky says:

    Whilst I agree with the issue is fraught with complications it’s yet another illustration that representative democracy isn’t democracy………at all.
    Successive administrations have poked more fingers into more pies on the premise that “we know best”, why do they do it, because they can, how is it facilitated, because we let them.
    Do they know best, not very often.

  6. Ex-expat Colin says:

    Its surely scary stuff..and here’s more form Lord M: (O/T Apols)


    • Ex-expat Colin says:

      form/from..but it is form isn’t it?

      • Jane Davies says:

        He was wrong on just one point our election is on 19th October and we need to boot Stephen Harper out because of many other issues other than climate change…..the signs are that he will be defeated and Tony Abbott has been replaced by Turnbull just this week.

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