As for opposition to changing the law, that's mainly based on a dogmatic obsession with the absolute "sanctity of life", which makes sense only to the dwindling minority of religious believers. To shore up their case, opponents manufacture the fear that legalising assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia will send us down a slippery slope to murder, but hard empirical evidence from Oregon and the Netherlands now shows this to be irrational.
In a nutshell, we have a real problem to which there is a rational solution: give mentally competent individuals the legal right to decide that their lives should end, give medical experts the legal right to assist in ending them painlessly and then put in place strict procedural safeguards against abuse.
So, at least, runs the liberalising story. The problem it identifies is real enough, but its solution is not so deeply rational. Closer inspection reveals several flies stuck deep in its ointment. One of the largest is the problem of eligibility. As things stand, the law in England, Wales and Scotland — as in most jurisdictions — prohibits the intentional killing of one person by another, except in proportionate self-defence. Since 1961, it has ceased to regard suicide as a crime, not because it doesn't care whether or not citizens kill themselves, but because it recognises that punishment is not an appropriate response to failed attempts at doing so. Nevertheless, the law has continued to criminalise assistance in suicide, partly to discourage suicide itself and partly to deter malicious help.
If we were to decide to breach the law's current absolute prohibition of intentional killing in order to allow some to assist others to kill themselves, we would then have to decide who should qualify for assistance. We might all agree that dying patients whose suffering is unbearable and beyond adequate relief should be eligible. Beyond that, however, plenty of room would remain for disagreement about when suffering is unbearable and when relief is inadequate. And it wouldn't be very long before someone reminds us that unbearable and irremediable suffering is not confined to the dying. What about the chronically ill and disabled? And then someone else would point out that one doesn't even have to be physically ill or hindered to experience life as an intolerable burden. What about the chronically and severely depressed, the bereaved or the philosophically gloomy? Don't these too deserve the right to die, come the day when they "decide they're in the negative" and conclude that soldiering on simply isn't worth the candle?
Once we have decided on a set of conditions under which people have the right to assistance in suicide, attention will shift to cases that meet those conditions but where the individuals concerned are incapable of killing themselves. Then we will confront the cruel inconsistency of our granting the benefit of a merciful release to the stronger, while withholding it from the weaker. The logic that brought us to assisted suicide will push us towards voluntary euthanasia.
Once we decide to breach the absolute prohibition of intentional killing, we might agree upon the need to limit the conditions under which assistance in suicide and euthanasia are permissible, but we will find that there are no very compelling reasons to draw the line in one place rather than another. Given the intrinsic difficulty of deciding where to draw the line, given the propensity of the media to focus on graphic personal stories rather than the larger social context and given the popularity of the libertarian rhetoric of arbitrary autonomy, there is good reason to fear that any liberalisation of the law will tend towards granting death on demand.
- A British Subject
- Travels with Betjeman
- Kizerman and Feigenbaum
- Communism’s Comeback?
- Irving Kristol on Jews and Judaism
- The State of Charity
- La Buena Muerte
- Cool It
- From 'Russia'
- 'Going Out' and Five Other Poems
- The Final Edition
- 'The Ship of Endurance' And Three More New Poems
- The Letters Of Hugh Trevor-Roper
- Lighten Our Darkness
- Folie à Dieu
- New Poetry