Assisted Dying: Whose Soul?

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 am pro-choice. 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 the potential of 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.

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 actually 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 utopian/fascistic, egotistical and surely 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, as made by humans may have jurisdiction over rule and punishment in the physical plane but no one has such spiritual jurisdiction over another individual. There is no such thing as vicarious atonement either. 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. As though we all have to suffer together. He seems to have 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 knowingly 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 dark art. 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 well overdue. 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.

17 thoughts on “Assisted Dying: Whose Soul?

  1. No, I still don’t believe that the motives of this government are to help anyone except the 1%. They are stripping away our human rights and acting not out of empathy, compassion, sympathy and concern but greed. The Liverpool Care Pathway got discovered whereby babies and elderly people had their food and water withdrawn and so died of hunger and dehydration. This is it resurrected in another cleverer disguise. j
    Just look at the figures for sanctioning and the bedroom tax and the way the poor and the disabled are being treated with food banks etc. No sign of empathy, care and compassion there, just smoke and mirrors and lies.

    Join the dots and you get a very disturbing picture. So no way!!! Do not give this lot a shred more power over you! As David Icke says, Lord Falconer has a lot of explaining to do about the assisted suicide of Dr David Kelly and many others.



  2. You have written a brilliant and cogent piece, for which I commend you. However, you have overlooked another powerful argument: that euthanasia and assisted suicide are cost-saving mechanisms for government.

    I’ve been posting the following:

    Euthanasia is increasingly viewed by debt-ridden, industrialized nations as a panacea to their aging and infirm populations. Don’t be fooled by Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill. Euthanasia is destined to be introduced under the guise of compassion and choice; a euthanasia law was recently passed in my hometown province of Quebec. Lethal injection was obfuscatorily termed “medical aid to die.” (An Ipsos Marketing survey found only one-third of Quebecers understood this meant a lethal injection.) It is a cost-saving mechanism: The economic argument in favour of euthanasia regards the elderly, sick and disabled as all cost and no benefit—and it is designed to save the government monies in benefits provision and elderly care costs.

    People in Britain should be asking: Have we forgotten so soon the lessons of the Liverpool Care Pathway scandal?

    (Montreal, Quebec)


    • Thank you, Samuel.

      I didn’t exactly overlook the point you have raised – I read far more widely than the links I’ve provided. I just didn’t write about it because, for 1), the articles I linked to said everything I would want to say, including on ‘slippery slopes’ and, 2), ‘euthanasia’ – as in a doctor administering the drug is not what is currently on the Bill and, 3), because I wanted to bring it back to principle first and 4), because I wanted to concentrate on what is also important to me: the overweighted influence of the Bishops in the writing of this law and is not being discussed, ie: the religion- who guards the Soul aspect.

      While I take your point that “Euthanasia is increasingly viewed by debt-ridden, industrialized nations as a panacea to their aging and infirm populations” and acknowledge there are potential, extrapolative dangers, as History teaches us, it is conversely seen by others as an enlightened practice, born of a desire to preserve dignity and prevent unnecessary suffering. It’s a subjective subject and should, therefore, be a matter of personal choice.

      Basically, it was an opinion piece whose cited articles were deliberately chosen to back that opinion up. I would have used other links had I wanted to reach for objectivity or to push the case against assisted dying.


  3. There is no such thing as “god” or “soul”. There is onlu us human beings in this.
    From my rationalist perspective, that simplifies the present “debate”.
    As you say, this should be an individual decision, not one forced, coerced or inflicted on anyone.
    This is why there should be safeguards such as at least two medical practitioners certifying that the person requesting personal termination is of sound mind and is not pressurised in any way in making the request for termination.
    I too have reservations about the mindset of this government but – if anything – it is that they seem to have an inordinate number of religious lunatics in their midst – look into the background of the new education and equalities secretary. I don’t think she is any improvement on Gove.
    There is a certain degree of hysteria surrounding this matter, with some people drawing parallels with Nazi Germany and their involuntary euthansia programmes.
    This is not – and never will be – Nazi Germany and this UK government is not – and never will be – a Nazi government.
    We all need to return to a sense of proportion on this matter and try to be rational about it.


  4. Thank you, Juli. Having witnessed the people who brought me up first, and then my father die a horrible and inhumane death, and then my mom-in-law whom I loved, and now my best friend’s father, I have had this with me all week, and thinking I needed to write about it, but also thinking that I was too raw and overwrought and risking being too emotional.

    I also felt that, given the state of my health at the moment, I’d probably be unable to be unbiased. There’s only one thing I tell my husband: what was done to my Dad and Mom-in-law would be persecuted in court if it were done to an animal. When the time comes when I can no longer hold my head and preserve my dignity, when I can no longer stand so much physical and emotional and psychological suffering, I want a fair law to exist, with all possible safeguards there. I want to choose, the moment I feel it is no longer fair for me, and for my life partner, my love and my carer, to artificially prolong what can no longer be called a life.

    Thanks for writing this.
    A tremendous hug, the size of your heart.


  5. I don’t know what to say – I truly understand the situations that people need to have the law to let them die with dignity – I saw my father die from cancer as well as both my in-laws – it was truly awful to see a person so ill and in so much pain.
    Years ago, doctors did “help” – they just upped the doses of morphine, or whatever other potent drug and let them die in peace surrounded by their loved ones. Families used to beg their doctor to help their mother, father, other family members, to die. He/she could not say that they would, only that they were keeping the person as comfortable as possible. The doctor knew when it was time as they had been their doctor for years, or since their birth, and he would just pop in a couple of times a day and “Just top up the painkiller” – and that night or early in the morning, the person would drift off peacefully.
    However, due to this government I, and many thousands, have lost any trust that they have in any kind of “officialdom”. For decades the people of the UK believed in their government – they may have not liked that particular government, but they understood reasons behind certain laws, changes to the way things were done and seeing how the government tried to look after the people. Now this un-elected coalition has destroyed everything we hold dear, including our lives. Their discrimination towards the disabled is now known about throughout the world. They have lied, and lied and lied so many times with each proposal, each discussion and each law. They will eventually change this law, slowly but surely, and on the quiet, to include elderly people who are bed-blockers in hospitals, especially private ones. Then they will start to include children born with disabilities or for premature babies as they will take up a lot of money to be cared for. Next will be the disabled and so on and so forth.
    So NO – I don’t want this law to be passed, not because I want to see and hear about people suffering but because I care about the people who are suffering. This government won’t!


    • The atom bomb project was begun at the urging of eminent scientists like Albert Einstein because of fears that the Nazis were working on a similar project (which they were) and might end up with the weapons system first. All the thousands of scientists who worked on the project in Britain and – predominantly – the US knew they were working on a bomb and few if any of them objected to it being deployed against Japan as a way to shorten the war – though there is a debate about whether or not Japan was on the verge of surrendering at the time anyway.
      One school of thought has it that Truman knew the Japanese were suing for peace terms through the Soviets but he wanted to show the Soviets that the US had the bomb as a means of containing the Soviet Union in the upcoming Cold War. The irony is that Stalin was well aware of the US atomic capability due to a network of well-placed spies in the Manhattan Project. Those spies provided the information which enabled to Soviets to develop their own atomic capability.
      The truth is often rather more complex than it at first appears.
      Overall, lack of time and government support between now and next year’s general election almost certainly means that any such measure is highly unlikely to be adopted any time soon.


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