Britain is inching towards the legalisation of euthanasia. Next month the House of Commons will debate overturning the ban on assisted dying – with the stipulation that the patient must have no more than six months to live, be able to make a “clear and settled intention” and have the approval of two doctors. It sounds foolproof. It’s also backed by a growing number of high profile stories of people so ill, so desperate that it’s hard not to sympathise with their decision to circumvent UK law and go to Dignitas. In an age when the boundaries of personal liberty are being pushed ever further, this seems like a rational and humane reform.
Except that it’s neither. It’s a terrible idea to base law upon individual cases of extreme circumstances. And while liberal reformers plea that they simply want to make the law reflect the realities of human experience, they overlook those human experiences that contradict their argument. Nearly 80 doctors across the country have written to the Telegraph to warn that the proposal could “devalue the most vulnerable in society.” They say that they regularly encounter patients who: “are under pressure from within to remove themselves as a burden on their hard-pressed families.” Sometimes that pressure does not come from within: “We do from time to time come across cases where there are signs of subtle pressures being exerted.” Libertarian reformers are often reluctant to acknowledge the sadder facts of life and the necessity of legal protection for the vulnerable. But these doctors write from positions of experience. Their warning should be heeded.
Here are two scenarios that MPs should consider when voting on this bill. First, a man is told that he has cancer and it has spread throughout his body. He lives alone. He is frightened. He has never experienced surgery this invasive or pain this traumatic. He doesn’t appreciate that the pain may be controllable – he’s confused and depressed. There’s also no one around to tell him that doctors get things wrong all the time. In panic, he might reach the conclusion that he’s rather be spared months of suffering. He’d rather die.
This man’s choice is a desperate one shaped by pitiful circumstances. What if he had been told by someone who loves him that there’s always hope? What if he’d been made to understand that the pain isn’t always unbearable, that it can be lived with and that he could even be given some relative comfort? Is he really committing assisted suicide because of his physical illness or because of his mental condition?
The second scenario is alluded to in the GPs letter. A woman is told her cancer is getting worse and she might have months to live. Her family are financially overstretched. They’ve never been very fond of her. They are told that they could make adjustments to their house at great expense to keep her at home or they could put her in social care, where they likely won’t visit. The patient is scared. She doesn’t want to be any problem for her family. When she tries to raise the subject they give answers that seem like placating: “Of course we love you. Of course we’ll look after you.” She concludes that she can’t trust her family or else she doesn’t want her last months to be spent living with guilt at having cost them money. So she chooses to die.
This scenario reminds us of something libertarians too often forget: people do not make choices in isolation. That’s not how real human beings work. Their decisions are shaped by their material circumstances and by the attitudes of those around them. Finally, they are shaped by culture.
Frankly, we run the risk of assisted dying becoming fashionable. That sounds glib, but it’s true. We are being bombarded with false statistics about over-population. We are told that social care is bad and under-funded (true in many cases but a good government could change this). The elderly are not valued but depicted as useless, costly. Wealthy liberals hail assisted suicide as a solution to the problem of pain, although pain is a tragic reality of life.
We aren’t encouraged to leave ourselves open to hope and love. But they are realities of life, too. A friend recently lost his mother. He told me that in the course of her illness, the doctors repeatedly said that it was time to “let nature run its course”. She repeatedly got worse only to recover and enjoy many more weeks with her family. He told me, emotionally, that he was so glad for that extra time. Isn’t it better to leave ourselves open to such wonderful possibilities than it is to choose death?