Assisted Suicide

Former Lord Chancellor and current Labour peer, Charles Falconer, has called for a change in the law on assisted suicide. He argues:

A person who has an illness from which two doctors consider he or she will die within 12 months, could receive assistance from their doctor to end their life if certain stringent safeguards were met, without the assister committing a crime. The doctors must be satisfied that: the person is aware of all the available social and medical help; the person is making the decision voluntarily, and with full capacity; no other person nor a sense of being a burden is unduly pressuring the person to commit suicide; there is no treatable mental condition that might alleviate the suicidal wish; and the process of the suicide will be carried out as humanely and as carefully as possible (Source: Guardian).

Archbishop Cranmer offered his opinion on this yesterday. Notably, he highlights that the advice taken by Lord Falconer was not particularly independent. He states that Dr Peter Saunders has blown the whole ‘independent’ claim out of the water. It was financed by the pro-euthanasia lobby, and composed predominantly of those whose pro-euthanasia proclivities precede their medical or ethical expertise: they are all appointees of Lord Falconer himself’.

However, the best comment on this issue also comes from The Guardian. Andrew Brown states the problem as follows:

No one wants either to prolong the life of the elderly into a grotesque torture, or to bump them off as soon as they become inconvenient, although these spectres lurk in the shadows of the argument.

There is clearly a point in many lives after which life is no longer worth living and should be ended as painlessly as possible. The question is who should decide when it has been reached. Under the old dispensation, doctors chose, and their decisions were tacitly accepted. Surely it is more modern, less authoritarian and more reasonable if patients make the choice, quite openly, for themselves?

The difficulty I have with this has nothing to do with religion, or with the supposed commands of a supposed God. It is about the nature of humanity. The thing that worries me about allowing patients to choose is that this isn’t the kind of decision that we can reasonably make alone. (Source: Guardian)

Indeed, some people would take this decision without speaking to anybody. In fact, some may, erroneously, feel there is simply nobody to whom they can speak. Such thoughts are certainly wrongly reasoned, even if one can only talk to the Samaritans, and are often a common sign of depression (exactly the sort of person whose decisions on such matters should not be taken as compos mentis). Nevertheless, there are very few people who would argue that taking such a drastic decision without any consultation is appropriate.

It is at this point, however, that any illusion of autonomy is shattered. If we agree that such decisions should not be taken without consultation, we immediately introduce outside opinion and, by definition, third party interest. As Brown rightly points out ‘these interests do not necessarily align with the patient’s’. Many might argue that counselling would be available from professionals who are trained to strict neutrality. However, Brown is again correct when he states ‘they aren’t the people on whom our self-esteem and self-worth mostly depend. Those come from the people who like us, or even love us, unprofessionally. And that’s a feeble crutch. There aren’t enough of them, and their sentiments are much more mixed than we would like’.

So, our decision will inevitably be discussed with those who like, or even love, us and who, by definition, have an interest in the outcome. This, in and of itself, means autonomy is a mere illusion in such decisions. Few would argue we should make the decision alone and without discussion but, as soon as this is introduced, autonomy no longer exists as outside interests become a factor. 

Brown concludes with the following:

It’s already abundantly clear that Britain has hundreds of thousands of old people whose lives are worth very little to anyone else, and who are neglected at best, abused at worst. Let’s suppose that only one in a thousand of them thinks their lives are hardly worth living – and that’s a very low estimate. That still means hundreds of people who would take the chance of assisted suicide if it were offered without pain or condemnation; and if we treat their decisions as wholly autonomous there is no reason to argue with them. 

But we know that in fact their actions and decisions would not be really autonomous. They are reactions to a world that others have made, and that we all have a part in. The fraudulence of this kind of autonomy talk is obvious when it’s applied to poverty. Rich and poor alike are free to choose to sleep under the bridges. We can all now see the damage that was done to society in the last 30 years by talking about choices that the powerless just don’t have as if they were real. When Tony Blair’s old flatmate Charlie Falconer extends this style of argument to judgments about life and death, the only sane response is to call it nonsense.

I can only agree.