I’m all for a law which permits an assisted death. I’m also for ‘living wills’ to be legally respected. I’m for these on the principle of Free Will which, at the most basic level of physical existence, means the right to do with my body as I see fit, for me. If I make a ‘mistake’ then that is my consequence. Yes, probably we could get into an elongated set of what-if overrides – throwing your body in front of a train, for example: that obviously inflicts consequences on others, as does sprinting naked at your child’s school sports day. I’ve done neither of those, by the way. But, for the purposes of assisted dying – as with abortion – I think only those personally and directly affected have any right to try to effect a different choice. By persuasion, that is, not coercion.
I’d read and heard a variety of statistics and opinions on both sides of the argument and, last weekend, was about to write my own take on assisted dying when I read Desmond Tutu’s wonderful essay on the subject and thought why bother: no point in reiterating what has already been so well told. I didn’t disagree with a word of it. I contented myself with scribbling a bit of verse instead.
The debate rolled on, in the Press, on the TV and Social Media. The whole spectrum of opinion flowed. Well, I say spectrum but really it was pretty much a polarisation of those who, roughly, were: a) pro the right to an assisted death, either on principle alone and/or by direct experience of the fear and practicalities of a drawn out and painful end and, b) those who were against the principle entirely, based mostly on religious grounds and/or those of the slippery slope persuasion who may or may not be against the basic principle. It was harder to discern the motives behind the slippery slope what-ifs of the anti group beyond the understandable fear of this callous government and a justifiable lack of trust in Institution. The emotional/mental blackmail pressures of culture, family and friends notwithstanding, if this group had trust in State actors, those who at the moment feel vulnerable at the mere thought of this Bill being passed: would they still be against it? That question didn’t get air.
As you know, I, myself, also loathe and rather fear this government but I’m concerned, too, about the Human Right afforded by this Bill and the Tory future is nowhere near sufficiently guaranteed – however it looks in the near-term – to make me couch my life within a projection of their force-fed ideas. Besides, if the Tories survive a whole consecutive term, I tell you, Reader: I’ll be banging on doors for this Law! Hyperbole? Just a sharp tongue for dramatic effect. It’s not an indication that I think Life is cheap (you know I don’t) but a comment on my despair at this (global) neoliberal persistence which will eat the whole planet and kill most of us anyway if it’s allowed to keep going.
So, the whole assisted suicide debate was depressing and reassuring by turn. I thought again to write something more than another blunt verse and then I came across Polly Toynbee’s excellent post. Again, I agreed with everything, from the merciful release to the financial aspects to the inadequacy of the proposed law. The requirement of having less than six months to live shows that this Bill, while welcome as the best shot yet, rather misses another justification for it, relevant in so many other scenarios – the unbearable suffering endured by those who don’t fit the “terminally ill” criteria, a point which has always been of equal motivation behind the desire for a law of permission. This Bill does not go far enough. Polly is one of a very few to point this out.
Anyway, between her and Desmond Tutu, (there were others) just about everything I would want to say was said. From his “what does it mean to be alive” question to Polly’s “we all stand on slippery slopes, if the alternative is to stand at an extreme at either end.”
What on earth could be left to express, then?
Well, this: Desmond Tutu is a man of Faith and Polly Toynbee is an atheist. As a consequence there is a gap that neither has addressed. The former because it would drastically reduce the hold that orthodox religions have on their flocks; the latter because the absence of belief in the notion of ‘god’ rather precludes the need for consideration, whether or not it is on her radar. The gap, however, is of great importance and, to me, it is glaring.
Just whose soul do the religious antis believe is of concern? Whose soul do they think they are saving and what makes them think they have an obligation or even a right to do so? Is it just their own individual souls they are watching out for or an anxiety for the soul of the individual making a choice they disapprove of? Do they fear that their own soul is at risk of collective punishment or is it out of concern for a collective soul; Humanity entire? Whatever, it’s ridiculously utopian/fascistic, egotistical and impossible. To me, anyway. To believe that god holds one individual responsible for another’s act is to disregard Free Will. To imagine that God will punish us all collectively for our sins, à la flood is subscribing to a ‘creator god’ who is in control of everything and that negates Free Will. These are ancient hypotheses which provide no more certainty today than they ever did. Just as we can understand the concept of ‘Free Will’ as ‘autonomy’ or ‘sovereignty’ without getting distracted by a theo-philosophical discussion of whether it really exists, we can debate cause and effect and cultural changes versus moral decline without bringing religious doctrine into a discussion. It serves no extra help in the lawmaking of a secular society.
Besides, either ‘god’ is everything or god is not at all. If god is everything then we are all god(s) – parts of a sum. In which case, there are as many paths to ‘god’ as there are Beings and each can be responsible only for its own soul. Ultimately, then, it is ourselves to whom we must answer.
Minding the soul and free will of others is not what is meant by ‘brother’s keeper’. The Law of humans may have jurisdiction over collective punishment in the physical plane but the collective has no such spiritual jurisdiction over an individual. There is no such thing as vicarious atonement. At-one-ment: “Middle English (originally in the sense ‘make or become united or reconciled’): from at one in early use; later by back-formation from atonement.” Our karma is our own to own.
Now, you don’t have to believe in any god to see that this patriarchal guarding of other people’s souls for their own sake is a major hook for organised religion and that, as Orthodox Religion has such a weighted voice of influence in the House of Lords, in this particular debate and in setting the terms of any potential law, the ‘sanctity of life’ must not be theirs to own and define beyond their own doctrine. Archbishop Justin Welby thinks that “true compassion suffers with all, including those whom we do not know or might never meet” and uses this like a race to the bottom chestnut to argue against the Bill. We all have to suffer together. He has missed the nuances between compassion, sympathy and empathy. It reminds me of the way the Church has taken “the poor will always be with you” line as an inevitability that must be endorsed. Orthodox Religion depends greatly on it. So, although Religion is still a representative voice to many and has every right to advocate its interests and opinions, it has no right to claim a monopoly over Faith, itself, nor what is ‘moral’. Their belief is not the Authority. Not in Law. Not any more.
There is a chasm between immoral and/or unlawful coercion and healthy efforts at persuasion whose limits are recognised and respected. We can wring our hands and gnash our teeth all we like at some of the decisions of those we care about and sometimes – often, even – it’s agonising to witness their self-inflicted suffering but that, as they say, is Life. To coerce another into acting against his/her Will just because one personally believes s/he is making a wrong or ‘sinful’ choice, is quite wicked. To deliberately manipulate another’s Will specifically for one’s own agenda is a black magic. This Bill is about giving access to individuals to make a specific personal choice on his/her own behalf. No one else’s choice; no one else’s behalf.
On Doctors ‘playing god’- they do this all the time if you think about it. So do plenty of people in many other fields. The maxim: first do no harm must surely include a doctor not prolonging the suffering of an individual, especially if that individual is asking for help to make that suffering stop. We know that many do help already, within their current capacities. So, as with abortion when first legalised, even if many doctors are currently against this, there will also be those prepared to see this as midwifery at the other end of physical life and, therefore, part of a good health service. What is being proposed is not a law of compulsion but a law of access to an important, personal request. It is not intended as a replacement for other types of palliative care and it is not intended as a method of eradicating assisted living, both of which can and should be improved. Its purpose is just to make available another choice.
The debate is welcome and the obvious concerns about safeguarding against abuse and pressure, of which we are all very aware and would all be keen to address, regardless of personal positions held: these are a vital part of making good, sound Law. While Welby is correct to say it “would be naive to believe.. that such pressure could be recognised in every instance”, that is the case with many aspects of life – the concept of marriage is not undermined because some people are forced into a marriage. And, no, of course I’m not suggesting a direct like-for-like comparison of circumstance.
Good, sound Law is always based on a principle and that is what we should debate and come to a conclusion about first. Creating a safe, practical method comes after. The principle is simple: Do you believe that you have a right to do with your body as you see fit and, if you do, do you believe that an assisted death, requested by a compos mentis individual who fits a legally structured criteria, is part of decent and compassionate healthcare? Maybe because, although you wouldn’t avail yourself of such a service you still respect that right of service existing for others who would; maybe because you already know you will need it one day and, just knowing you could get it would make each preceding day more bearable and may save you from cutting your life even shorter as you balance length of time with the dwindling capacity to end it all entirely by yourself; maybe because, although you’re fine now, that ‘just in case’ card is an insurance of enormous comfort.
Traditionally, we humans make a great deal out of respecting last wishes. We’re all going to die but how? If I am ever so unfortunate as to want and need to ask for help to do so before Nature takes me, I hope my dying wish is at least respected by both the Law and my doctors.