Assisted suicide: There is no dignity in suffering

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Every one has their own little trick for falling asleep. Mine is to listen to Radio 4. Nothing makes me drift off more easily than Westminster Hour or The World Tonight. However, the effectivity of this strategy quickly goes down the drain when the program is either really interesting or indeed infuriating. The latter happened on Saturday night when I listened to the Moral Maze. The topic: Assisted Dying.

In the previous week the Guardian reported that a bill seeking to legalise assisted suicide is being prepared to be put before parliament this year. Although plans for the change of legislation have found a strong advocate in the Lib Dem Minister of State for Care and Support, Norman Lamb, they have ignited a fervent debate. While two panelists on the Moral Maze have shown themselves supportive, I found some of the arguments brought forward against this issue somewhat disturbing, and even demeaning.

Although I recognise that euthanasia is a difficult and problematic practice, I intuitively approve of it and feel that it can benefit patients who are suffering and/ or are terminally ill. I am immediately reminded of Gary, whose article On existing when you don’t want to (in The Re|view, last December) revealed the daily distress of living with chronic mental illness. Gary, who has been hoping for years that Canada will change their legislation to allow compassionate assisted suicide, gave me the first comprehensive insight to the mind of someone seriously, commitedly, engaged with the idea of dying voluntarily.

I suppose few people in Gary’s situation can channel enough energy into reasoning with the world in the same accessible way. Consequently, it may be difficult for many to really know and understand the pain of those wishing to die. One of the panelists on Saturday night, the controversial writer Claire Fox, seems to lack such comprehension altogether. In her opinion, even someone with only three weeks left to live and who suffers from terrible pain ought not to be allowed to die because “a lot of living can be done in three weeks”.

Fox ignores that those patients in question have likely already considered the loss associated with dying prematurely, and have nonetheless concluded that the agony they are going through is just not worth it. I doubt that a decision like that can be taken lightly, and there is no reason why we should assume people uncapable of understanding the consequences of their actions.

Besides, a formal review process (as will be suggested in the bill) would serve to ensure that necessary information on this topic is provided by health professionals, as well as to ascertain that the choice is a firm and serious one. In this way, we could (and should) grant people the full right to make these decisions, while providing them with a safe and sympathetic environment. Fox, by the way, calls this a potential “bureaucratic nightmare”. To me, that is just shying away from the effort it takes to give people the rights they deserve.

Although Fox pertains that assisted suicide propagates a pessimistic attitude and that only its inhibition would put a real value on life, I find her rhetoric close to impertinent. She presumes, quite condescendingly, that when it comes to death, self-determination is impossible because of a lack of knowledge. “You never know – you might suddenly get better, or find joy in life again”, is Fox’s message. This is correct, of course, but it is equally trivialising. There is imperfection and some ignorance in every one of our decisions, but that doesn’t invalidate them in any other part of life, so why in death?

It is noble and right to build our treatment of the ill on the hope that they might be cured, but we should be rational, too. Our humanist credo cannot, by default, be that life is always better than death. We have to consider the development of the illness, age, the chance of recovery, the pain, and what the patient wants. Life is always valuable, yes, but in some rare cases a peaceful and anticipated death can override a miserable existence.

Fox, as well as journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards, looks at the larger picture rather than the individual case. Both appear to be afraid that society is in danger of being seized by some sort of death lust. Fox says: “My point is that culturally and morally, there is a danger, is there not, though, of endorsing people giving up, of almost encouraging them to.” They behave, as surely other critics do as well, as if euthanasia will become part of the medical routine in hospitals throughout the UK: “Ok, let’s do an X-ray, an MRI scan, and if we don’t find anything, how about a nice lethal dose of medication?” It’s just not going to happen like this.

Of course we have to be careful. Notwithstanding my firm belief that there is no great danger of selfish relatives or carers taking advantage, society must remain committed to protect the individual from harm. I concede that there may be risks, that unexpected cures do happen, and that one, given time, can find meaning in life despite the torment caused by illness. But I don’t think that these (often vague) possibilities are strong enough to justify the complete absence of proper legislation.

If parliament does not vote in favour of the forthcoming bill, I fear that we might endorse suffering over relief. By forcing ill people to die an ‘honorable’ – possibly horrific – death rather than an ‘artificial’ one, our society implies that suicide is weak and cowardly, while in fact it is difficult and heart-breaking. An attitude like this burdens those affected with guilt, in addition to the fear that whoever facilitates a suicide now might be prosecuted according to current law.

We should allow these considerations to factor into the definition of our ethics. Morality is not about always doing the same thing because we perceive it to be ‘natural’. It should be about doing the right thing, and based on all the evidence and experience available to us.

Photograph by Bolshakov, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Agatha Frischmuth

Agatha Frischmuth is Chief Editor of The Re|view.

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