Right To Die

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Crime & Policing, Disability, Life, Politics

Debbie Purdy has won her battle to have the law on assisted suicide clarified. This is being reported in many places as if she ‘has won her right to die battle’. This is misleading, for so so many reasons. Firstly, I don’t believe it’s actually illegal to die: I’m not aware of any governments actually outright banning death (although if the government would like to introduce new legislation to keep me alive perpetually, I have no objection).

Secondly, there’s an implication that her husband will be allowed to travel with her to the Swiss clinic Dignitas, help her get there, in other words assist her to commit suicide and then will not be subject to prosecution on his return. This is not necessarily the case. What has happened is that the Law Lords have decided it is unfair to leave people in suspense — there needs to be clear guidance on whether or not people will be prosecuted, and in what circumstances, for helping a partner to commit suicide.

Five Law Lords ruled the Director of Public Prosecutions must specify when a person might face prosecution. [...] The Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said he would publish an interim policy on when prosecutions could occur by September before putting the issue out to public consultation. Permanent policy will be published next spring.BBC News: MS woman wins right to die fight

This is certainly not the same as saying that assisting a suicide will not face prosecution. It’s simply saying that there will be clear guidance, so that you’ll have a fair idea whether or not you’re likely to face prosecution…

Personally, I’m a firm believer that people, on the whole, have a right to decide what to do with their own life. It gets a lot trickier if they have any dependents, as obviously these need to be taken into account, but if you’re not responsible for anyone else, then I think it’s pretty much up to you: although you need to consider the impact your decision will have on others. And quite often, unless you’ve got a terminal condition or it’s easy for others to understand that your quality of life is permanently and critically impaired, any decision of this nature will cause a tremendous amount of pain for those left behind, and I don’t think it is fair to inflict suffering on others in this way.

But the idea of an MS sufferer deciding that her life is not worth living hasn’t necessarily gone down well with other MS sufferers and disability groups. There’s a post on the BBC Ouch! messageboard which strikes rather to what I see as the crux of the problem:

It’s a slippery slope where this gets legalized. First it’s all the people with MS who want to end their lives get “assisted”, then it’s, “Gee, Mom, you’ve got MS and it’s getting a little troublesome to take care of you as your disease progresses. When can I “assist” you?” [...] we don’t want that “right to die” to turn into the “responsibility to die,” not necessarily by the law, but from family/cultural expectations. This is where we have to be careful, I think.Ouch! Talk: Assisted Suicide Court Review Due

That is, as far as I can see it, precisely the issue. I think people should have the right to decide what they want to do with their lives — but equally you wouldn’t want people bringing that life to a premature conclusion because they felt they were being a “burden” on others. I’m not claiming that it’s something easy. But if it means that someone who is suffering can die with a bit more dignity, and a bit more control, then I can’t really bring myself to be against it.

This is partly due to personal circumstance: my grandfather eventually starved to death as his mobility was severely limited after a stroke and the only control he could exert was that he was able to pull the feeding tube out of his arm. Having watched a loved one suffer like that, but choosing to die on his terms, rather than continuing a life which he no longer wanted, was an awful thing to see. He was able to take that control, but it would have been better had he not had to wait to starve but had had yet more control.

But some people can be against it, and can present quite powerful arguments:

Phyllis Bowman, executive officer of lobby group Right to Life, claimed the law lords had exceeded their powers and threatened to take further legal action. “They have changed primary legislation without any reference to parliament,” she said. “They have declared that it is lawful for somebody to help a person to commit suicide abroad — but not at home. We will be consulting with our lawyers to see what possible action can be taken.”

She added that disability rights groups across the country opposed any change to the laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia, on the basis that it would undermine the right to life of vulnerable people.

Guardian: Pro-life group plots legal action

I disagree with Phyllis on the first point: I don’t think anyone has changed legislation: they’ve simply said that you’ve got to offer guidance on when — and whether — particular pieces of legislation are to be enforced. The status quo is that they already aren’t being enforced, only there are no guarantees this will remain the case. Providing guidance and treating each case equally seems perfectly reasonable to me.

The other point — opening up the possibility of assisted suicide abroad, but not in this country — is a much trickier one for me. If you are to allow people to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland, are you not saying that the right to die with dignity at a time of your choosing is only open to those with the required level of financial resources, and that if you can’t afford it, these rights don’t apply to you?

And that is something I can’t stand for. Either we allow — through a clear non-prosecution stance — people to assist the suicide of others under certain controlled conditions, or we don’t. We cannot allow a situation where the laws are different for the rich and the poor. If we’re going to allow it, it needs to be allowed in this country.

I’m not saying that we should, or we shouldn’t. I’m currently in favour of it, but I can certainly see arguments against also. What we need is a grown up rational debate about it, if such a thing is possible in the arena of politics…

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4 Comments to Right To Die

  1. masklinn says:

    August 5th, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    > but equally you wouldn’t want people bringing that life to a premature conclusion because they felt they were being a “burden” on others.

    Why not? You wouldn’t want people being forced (not just directly but through peer/social pressure) to die, but why couldn’t people take their own life if they feel they can’t contribute meaningfully, or they’re “killing” their family/friends or whatever?

    Not everyone wants to make it to 80 or more, and not every family can afford it.

  2. JackP says:

    August 6th, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Hmm. Interesting thought, that one.

    I personally find that uncomfortable because if society allows people to feel unwanted, or a burden, then this will push more people down this route; and society should provide the required level of support. ‘Afford’ simply shouldn’t come into it in a civilised society.

    On the other hand, I do agree in the rights of the individual to choose; but choosing because of cost or feeling a burden suggests to me that society is broken which is a bigger problem that needs to be fixed instead of taking this route…

  3. Contax says:

    September 6th, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    I would love to be able to purchase a substance that would provide certain death without pain, I have requested help from Dignitas twice but been turned down as not classed a terminally ill, I suffer from several illnesses including depression and have wanted to get out of this meaningless life for many years. I constantly spend all through the night considering different ways such as under a train, jump off a motorway bridge and many others but then I am causing others a possible life of suffering and cleaning up the mess. I would like to lie in my coffin with my familly present and take a substance that would let them see me go in peace without pain, this way I can sort out my affairs clearly before I go. Would others rather I downed all the whisky and pills I could with a rope round my neck so I fall and hang when I am to far gone to realise as this is my present plan but I can’t think what it will do to my wife I have cared for for 38 years as her familiy did not want to deal with her mental and learning difficulties. I have begged her to take a holiday so I can be alone to take my own life in my own bed but she will not go as she knows the end of my life will be the end of her’s, it’s hard to leave her alone to just find me dead.

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