Monday, 16 December 2013

In the public eye

I really don't enjoy being in the public eye, but Jane and I were on Channel 5's evening news tonight: We'd been interviewed about assisted suicide, which is in the UK news again because there's an appeal case before the Supreme Court basically seeking to legalise the practice for some. It's really a continuation of the Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb case, arguing for doctors killing an incapable terminally ill patient who wants to die because of "necessity".

The filming took about three hours - the clip they edited (well, I must say) played for less than two minutes. I hope it provided some evidence that not everyone with a "terminal condition" and very few disabled people want euthanasia legalised. I think Channel 5 got on to us because of an item we'd done for Yahoo News a couple of months ago which came on line last week. You can see Jane and me and the dogs here: Terminally ill man on why life is our greatest gift (Yahoo). (Jess has since been put down.)

There are many reasons why relaxing our laws to allow even a limited intentional taking of life is a bad idea. But they of course lack the emotional punch and sentimental appeal of horror stories. For myself I am always slightly suspicious of highly coloured accounts of personal suffering. They seem to me to be attempts to persuade by-passing the intellect. Of course the end of life is an emotional subject, and emotion should play its part, but if we abandon reasoned discussion we make ourselves prey to all kinds of prejudice and irrationality.

So what are my reasons for devoutly hoping that the nine Supreme Court judge reject this latest assault on the sanctity of life? Here are some notes.

Unintended consequences
I don't suppose the legislators who, acting from the best of motives, brought in the Abortion Law foresaw that it would become a charter for disposing of many thousands of babies with Down's Syndrome or a cleft palate.

Hard cases
Make bad laws. Our system combines case law and legislation. The place for considering ethical issues as hard and complex as this is Parliament, not the law courts.

Yes, I have compassion for people in pain and disabled and terminally ill. Tony Nicklinson said to me the difference between himself and me was that I could commit suicide if I wanted. It's not actually true. But compassion doesn't really mean killing someone. It means sticking with them through pain. It means relieving their symptoms and minimising their pain. It means good palliative care.

Prof Hawking's "pet" theory ("You would let your dog suffer") is one quarter right, three quarters wrong. We had Jess put down because her life was miserable, but also because she became doubly incontinent, was likely to incur costly vet's bills, was no longer much fun to have around. 3 of 4 reasons were to do with our discomfort, not hers.

Defence of the vulnerable
I'm not concerned for myself - although I don't look forward to the process of dying - but I am concerned for the vulnerable, the disabled who don't have a voice, the depressed, for the elderly who are at risk through dementia or frailty - for those who are increasingly regarded as a burden on their families, on society, on our nation's resources. It's those people our laws should protect. The court case seems to me to be about people who are far from vulnerable. They actually are strong-willed, if desperate, and well supported.

Hippocratic oath v necessity
As I understand it, one request in this case is for health professionals (such as doctors and carers) to be allowed to take someone's life or to assist in their suicide: so for example allowing my doctor to administer a lethal injection at my request. That opens the door to doctors ceasing to be healers and carers, and becoming dealers in death. That is one of the most valuable safeguards in the DPP's Guidelines on Prosecution in respect of Assisted Dying. I guess that's why the BMA is against a change in the law.

As events proved, there was no necessity for a doctor to end Tony Nicklinson's life. He could refuse treatment and ask for only symptom control and pain relief.

All of us may refuse treatment: none of us may demand treatment. To allow one class - ie. paralysed - to demand would discriminate against others and set a precedent for any to demand "treatment" as we wished.

Justice and mercy
The present Suicide Act protects the absolute primacy of life - but allows room for mercy with the discretion of prosecutor, judge and jury. It has worked, and it isn't broken. Don't try and change it.

The disabled fear a change in the law. We feel at risk. We don't want to be endangered.
Many ageing people fear it. The majority of elder abuse takes place in the home or in care homes.
The campaign for euthanasia encourages fear. It feeds on our natural fear of pain, of dying and of the unknown. And it fuels that fear.
Fear is toxic to a healthy society.

Rights only come with responsibilities. My right to life, or to death, can't be isolated. If my demanding the right to die endangers the lives of others, then my responsibility to them trumps my choice.

'My life'
Actually life isn't our possession. We are part of life.

Everyone has a philosophy of life. Mine informs my view, just as anyone else's affects theirs. However, my objections are pragmatic. I'm concerned about the consequences of eroding the law for our society. I'm concerned about cheapening life - reducing it to a commodity. I'm concerned about protecting the vulnerable. I don't want our country to go the way of Belgium, where they're moving towards euthanising children, or of Holland when we could face 13,000 assisted suicides a year. I'm concerned that we never see euthanasia as an easy way to reduce our NHS and care costs.


  1. Coming towards the celebration of the coming into the world of Life itself, I find your article, and indeed all that is being said about this subject profoundly moving.
    It's difficult to comprehend just how difficult life must be for some and one wishes that they could be enveloped by Love and deeply feel how valuable their life is. I have been listening to this beautiful song about hope.

    1. Thank you, Leafy. You're right, love, whose source is the same and who I believe is God, makes all the difference to suffering. Not that it removes it, but it means it's not endured alone.

      And thank you for the Song of Hope. I love that short "poem".