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.