Illustration by Paul Wearing
"There should be a booth on every corner where you could get a martini and a medal." No doubt Martin Amis was exaggerating for stylish effect, but he wasn't joking. After watching Alzheimer's disease reduce Iris Murdoch to spending her days gazing at the Teletubbies and after witnessing his stepfather dying "very horribly", Amis's support for legalising assisted suicide has stiffened. "There should be a way out for rational people who've decided they're in the negative," he told the Sunday Times. "That should be available, and it should be quite easy."
Pressed by the relentless stream of cases of "rational" suicide and mercy killing recently publicised by a story-hungry, analysis-shy British media, even long-time defenders of the legal status quo can be forgiven for weakening and wondering if Amis isn't right after all.
The truth is that some of us face dreadful ways of dying. Sufferers from motor neurone disease, for example, might have to look upon the prospect of suffocating to death. Others with obstructive tumours might have to contemplate spending their last days vomiting their own faeces.
But it is not just the dying who have reason to fear. Some of the living are burdened with lives that are severely restricted. Among recent clients of Dignitas (the Swiss clinic for assisted suicide) was a chronically disabled Irishman who could not swallow, whose only means of feeding was a tube inserted into his stomach and whose capacity to communicate was very limited. Another was Daniel James, the young victim of a rugby accident who refused to reconcile himself to life as a tetraplegic. And then there was Sir Edward Downes, the octogenarian conductor who had no appetite for soldiering on alone after the death of his wife.
Under conditions as difficult and miserable as these, how can human life be worth persevering in? Why on earth should we endure it to the bitter end? What could possibly be the point? Yes, palliative care can relieve the distress of most of the terminally ill, but there are always some cases beyond its reach. And it cannot relieve the frustration of the chronically disabled or the despair of the bereaved.
Surely, therefore, compassion obliges the law to let us seek an efficient escape from unbearable suffering, whether through help in killing ourselves (physician-assisted suicide) or through someone else killing us upon our request (voluntary euthanasia). And besides, don't we have a right to autonomy? After all, an individual's life is his own property, for him to use as he sees fit. He is the sole arbiter of its worth, and he alone is competent to decide when it has become intolerable.
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