Today the House of Lords had its second reading of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, which would give terminally ill people the option to end their own lives. The bill only applies to terminally ill and mentally competent people who are reasonably expected to die within 6 months. Approval by two doctors is needed before life-ending medication can be given to the patient to take by themselves, and the medication would not be given to ill people who may recover, disabled people, or the elderly. The option to die applies only to those with a terminal illness who are considered sound of mind, and the bill does not legalize euthanasia.
Supporters of the bill argue that it is unfair to make an individual suffer unduly. If no recovery is possible and the end is somewhat near, prolonging suffering helps nobody. Giving people control over their own time of death allows them to end the suffering that their illness causes them, hopefully surrounded by their friends and family in a controlled environment. For supporters, the question of assisted dying is as follows: Who should decide when you die, other people, or you? It is an issue of civil liberties, and it’s one supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Writing for The Observer, Tutu details the disgusting way that Nelson Mandela’s life was prolonged including the painful hospital visits and photo opportunities that he was made to endure, all because the world didn’t seem ready to let go of the iconic figure. Tutu argues that “it was an affront to Madiba’s dignity” and that the right to die would have brought his lengthy suffering to an end.
Supporters also argue that legalizing assisted dying brings the practice under the regulatory watch of the state. The safeguards which would be implemented by decriminalizing assisted dying would prevent botched suicide attempts and so-called “death tourism”, such as travelling to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, which is a long and sometimes costly trip for ill people to make. Some go so far as to say that terminally ill suicides are going to happen one way or another, and that it’s best to put safeguards in place and bring the issue to national scrutiny in order to let the suicidal take their lives in the right way under the right conditions.
But not everybody agrees. Opponents of Lord Falconer’s bill have many arguments against the principle of assisted suicide. Among them are religious arguments, such as the idea that life is a gift from God and should never be cut short, and the argument that it’s just simply wrong to kill people with poison.
Non-religious arguments take the form of serious concerns about the impact of the bill specifically. Opponents argue that doctors will be forced to become “suicide judges” and that legalizing assisted dying may create a culture of death where family members, friends and even carers will be able to pressure the terminally ill to end their own lives. Reverend Christopher Jones died of a terminal illness in 2012 but affirmed his opposition to the right to die. He said that he once felt hopeless when faced with the suffering of his condition, but experienced renewed vitality and enjoyment in life. The right to die, he argued, would result in people cutting their lives short when in fact there is a chance that they may have found some reason to keep going. Reverend Jones argued that because assisted suicide was illegal at the time of his darkest hour, he was forced to “respond to [his] situation more creatively and hopefully”.
I am completely and utterly opposed to these arguments, and I support the bill fully. Talk of “death squads” and “suicide judges” is pure fantastical imagery with no evidential basis. Equally, I find it very hard to take the religious arguments seriously. The idea that life and death is in God’s hands is an outdated and archaic argument that serves only to limit individual liberty. It really has no place in a debate because frankly some of us do not believe that human matters should be delegated to a higher power who (for some of us) does not exist. If you believe that human life is a gift from God and should never be cut short, that is perfectly reasonable, but you may not enforce that belief on the rest of us. This is a secular country after all.
As Lord Joffe said at the second reading in the House of Lords, “conjecture and strongly held personal beliefs are not an adequate substitute for statutory and objective evidence”. But above all, we must respect the notion of bodily autonomy, which has been the justification for freedom of sexual orientation, access to abortion, the criminalization of assault, and other cornerstones of civil liberties. You have the right to decide what happens to your own body, and assisted suicide is just another facet of this most basic right.
As for the non-religious arguments, they all run the risk of only really applying to the person making them. So you don’t want to take your own life, you’re content to keep going, so what? Why must we make assisted dying a punishable offence because you have no use for it? There are people out there who are under no pressure from friends, family or their doctors, who face real and intense suffering, who wish to take their own life. Who are you to deny them that right? Who are you to make them suck it up and endure blind, untreatable pain? Nobody can deny that the decision to end your life is a deeply personal one. Nor can anybody deny that it’s fantastic that Reverend Jones was able to reignite his passion for life before he died, and in an ideal world everybody would find a way to make peace with their approaching death.
But we do not live in an ideal world. Not everybody has the opportunity or the strength to find vitality in the face of certain and upcoming death, especially when you’re enduring blinding and debilitating pain. Think of Craig Schonegevel, a South African sufferer of neurofibromatosis who ended his own life by taking sleeping pills and suffocating himself under a plastic bag, all because the law would not allow for his assisted suicide. Anecdotes cannot make for good legislation because one person’s experiences rarely match up with everybody else’s, especially in such a contentious issue as assisted dying.
Anecdotes aside, some cancers and genetic terminal illnesses can cause immense amounts of suffering. Pain medication may deal with it for the most part, but the stronger the medication, the stronger the consciousness-altering affects can be. Are opponents of assisted dying really arguing that the only solutions to terminal illness should be extreme pain or medication which makes the patient totally unaware of what’s going on? There is a viable third option that is going to waste and driving some terminally ill people to take matters into their own hands. Some suffering cannot be overcome and palliative care only goes so far. As Desmond Tutu wrote, “why exit in the fog of sedation when there’s the alternative of being alert and truly present with loved ones?”
The final opposing argument I want to deal with is the idea that legalization will lead to abuse, that legal suicide will cause family members, friends, carers and even doctors to pressure the terminally ill to end their own lives so that the burden of care is removed. In 1994 Oregon voters passed a Death With Dignity Act which allowed for terminally ill people to get life-ending medication, with the approval of a physician and confirmation by two witnesses. From the passing in 1994 to 2013, a total of 1,173 people have requested the medication, 752 of which took the medication and ended their own life. Most of the people who died were suffering from cancer, and there has been absolutely no evidence of foul play or pressure since the Act passed. Washington passed a highly similar Act in 2008, and there has been no evidence of family members pressuring their terminally ill residents to die there either. People are simply not pressuring their relatives or patients to die.
As misguided as the opponents of the bill are, they are right in one respect. Better palliative care is needed, so that the terminally ill people wishing to die are doing so because of the untreatable suffering that they endure, not because they don’t feel as though they’re getting the right care. All of the conditions of a good and decent life, that are within our control, should be provided for terminally ill people, so that the option of assisted dying is undertaken for the right reasons. But it is a false dichotomy to suggest that we must decide between decent palliative care and assisted suicide. Why not both?
Before the House of Lords, Lord Blair of Boughton argued that when a terminally ill person makes the decision to end their own life, there are no safeguards or support networks in place. If the person takes matters into their own hands, medical examiners, police officers and even forensic analysts may have to examine the death bed, turning the place of death into something of a crime scene. This does nothing but create a symphony of stress for the grieving relatives left behind, and in extreme cases funerals may be delayed whilst examiners make sure the death wasn’t suspicious. Those who do not take matters into their own hands either die in extreme agony, or die under the haze of powerful medication. The Assisted Dying Bill offers people a fourth option for those whose end is near.