Assisted dying: a divisive topic

An assisted dying Bill — a proposal to allow terminally ill competent adults the assistance to end their lives — is due to come back before Parliament next month.

As can be seen from our letters page this week, it’s going to cause a clear division of views: the letter calls the bill “cruel and evil”. Others will take the opposite view, that’s it’s the state being compassionate, allowing people to avoid the suffering of an inevitable, undignified and/or painful death.

Congleton’s MP Fiona Bruce is a devout Christian and opposes assisted dying on doctrinal grounds. She told the Catholic Herald in June that she was “confident” that members of Parliament would “vigorously oppose and reject” the new Bill.

She presumably believes in the sanctity of life because of her religion. She softens this for the non-believing majority by couching it in terms with which they will sympathise, saying she’s worried that the frail, the elderly, the sick and the disabled will end (or be pressured to end) their lives because they don’t want to be a burden.

(It’s interesting that she is quoted in the Catholic Herald: she’s not a Catholic but Christians have common ground over this. We know left-leaning Catholics who dislike the Tories but agree with Mrs Bruce).

The argument seems to be as with bicycle helmets. Health experts oppose mandatory helmet-wearing, because for the population as a whole, the more people exercise, the better it is. The statistics show health improvements.

But if you’re a cyclist, mid-spill, there’s a 100% chance your head is to going to hit something hard and the outcome is not going to be an improvement in health. Compulsory helmet wearing suddenly seems highly desirable.

The same is true of assisted dying. Healthy people debating the issue for the country as a whole can take a lofty stance, talking about the general good, and principle. A terminally ill patient with no chance of improvement and only pain and the loss of dignity to look forward to will see the argument differently. (On the other hand: hard cases famously make bad law. It would be wrong for MPs to swayed by one person’s plight, however heart-rending it was).

It seems to me that there is no right and wrong in this argument.

Mrs Bruce is correct: we only have one life (God-given if you’re so inclined) and anything that encourages people to relinquish this marvellous gift should be resisted.

Then again, doctors already help people on their way, as long as the increase in pain killers that sees you off is given on medical grounds. People can end their own lives if they so wish, but without a law allowing assisted suicide, they could be forced to do so using means that are otherwise unacceptable.

If you want to die with dignity, you may feel the best time is just after you lose muscle control, (or just after the pain relief you’re receiving makes affirmative action impossible), with the assistance of family and your GP, and having said your goodbyes and made peace.

Far better this than taking an overdose without telling anyone, because you’re worried you won’t be able to at some future point.

Anyone who argues on these grounds — that people should be able to die with dignity, at a time and place of their choosing — is as correct in their conclusion as Christians such as Mrs Bruce are in theirs.

Christians believe a greater power – God – tells them how to behave and holds them to account. While they protect life because He wants them to, there must also be an element to their thinking that says it’s acceptable for an authority to tell people how to run their lives, whether it’s God telling them not to steal or the Government telling people they can’t die. Libertarian non-believers have no belief in a god, so no ethical grounds to say assisted dying is wrong, and lack a mindset that agrees with any authority telling people how to live and die.

Doubtless people will bring much into the argument, but all else would seem to be window dressing, or raised to confuse.

The Economist newspaper — which is in favour of assisted dying — recently reviewed the evidence and it seems that much of the claims people make are not borne out in reality.

The US state of Oregon has allowed assisted dying since 1997, and so has stats and facts to hand. It reports that assisted dying is not foisted on vulnerable and bullied patients: those who choose assisted suicide are well-educated and insured.

Some argue that death with dignity is already possible via our excellent hospice movement, but Oregon reports that people choosing to die typically already receive palliative care.

“They are motivated by pain, as well as the desire to preserve their own dignity, autonomy and pleasure in life,” The Economist said.

It also made the point that in Oregon 1,327 people have received lethal medicine, but only two thirds of those have actually used it to take their own lives.

(Oregon allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with less than six months to live who ask for them, if a second doctor agrees. There is a cooling-off period of 15 days).

The Economist also quoted a Swiss clinic, which said that the bulk of its services were counselling, and it talked many people out of committing suicide – it doesn’t just take their money and see them off.

It all boils down to whether you belief people should live out the full term of their lives, or whether, under certain circumstances, people should be allowed to quit while they’re ahead.

It’s a difficult decision for MPs with no correct answer.

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