Monday, 1 February 2010

Why the right to die goes hand in hand with the right to live

A basic precept of individual liberty is self-ownership. You have the supreme authority over your own thoughts and actions, provided that you do not violate the rights of others, without interference from any governing power. As such, when the BBC ask "should assisted suicide be legal," the only answer I can give is "yes."

The question itself is motivated by two high-profile cases in point. Frances Inglis has been jailed for life for the murder of her son, who existed in a permanent, vegetative state. Kay Gilderdale, on the other hand, was acquited of attempted murder after assisting the suicide of a terminally-ill daughter who begged for death. Meanwhile, novelist and early-onset Alsheimers patient Terry Pratchett has volunteered to be a test case for assisted suicide tribunals.

There are important questions to be asked as we enter this arena. The idea of "tribunals" is a good idea because it allows for any potential abuse - i.e. the vulnerable being pressured into a suicide they do not want by family eager for an inheritance - to be rooted out, without leaving the long-suffering to beg for death and suffer unending agony before it comes. Looking towards the animal kingdom and the vetinary profession, it seems that, faced with intractable suffering before an inevitable death, we are the only species not to be spared the agony.

But, it seems, we have many reactionary hurdles to overcome before this is rectified. Typical of the "pro-life" lobby is M R Hall, whose sophistry borders on the obscene;
But what about the sufferers, don't they have a right to escape their pain? No, not if we believe that life is sacred. We've become so used to the idea that suffering is to be avoided at all costs, that the very notion that we might have to bear it is seen as a violation of some emerging right to a minimum level of comfort. But suffering has a positive purpose. Of course it's tough for the sufferer, but it's only through witnessing the pain and agony of others that we properly develop empathy and compassion. Many of us will suffer at our end, and for years beforehand; but, I would maintain, we have a duty to tolerate our suffering as a sacrifice for the respect our society has learned to accord to life generally: only through coping with and witnessing our suffering will rising generations gain true respect for the miracle of conception and all that follows it.
In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins recounts Richard Swinburne's attempts to use just such a justification for the Holocaust. Peter Atkins's response to Swinburne - "may you rot in hell" - is topped only by Devil's Kitchen's response to Hall. He "might be the biggest cunt in the world."

Likewise, flak-outlet Biased BBC's suggestion that those who support assisted suicide, especially the BBC, "love death like we love life" is nothing short of hysteria. Not least for the title "Death Panels."

From at least the most outspoken of its opponents, we can expect little to no rational debate on the subject of assisted suicide. And such sophisms as are on offer are not only an insult to reason, but also to those who face the realities of this subject every day and utterly below contempt. The moral crusades seen in the United States, where congregations of religious zealots use the legislature to keep people alive against their own and their family's wishes, are a potent example of this.

Pratchett, lucid, articulate, and wishing assisted death for himself when his suffering becomes too great, sums it up better than I can;
If granny walks up to the tribunal and bangs her walking stick on the table and says 'Look, I've really had enough, I hate this bloody disease, and I'd like to die thank you very much young man', I don't see why anyone should stand in her way.

Choice is very important in this matter. But there will be some probably older, probably wiser GPs, who will understand. The tribunal would be acting for the good of society as well as that of the applicant – and ensure they are of sound and informed mind, firm in their purpose, suffering from a life-threatening and incurable disease and not under the influence of a third party.
The right to live is an important one. Nobody should be permitted to take somebody else's life against their will by force or coercion, and this includes cases of terminal illness. But nobody is advocating such a thing. What we are saying, as opponents resort to hyperbole, superstition, and sophistry, is that though life is a right it is not an obligation. Alongside the right to live by our own volition, we should have the right to die under the same conditions. As Pratchett says, "my life, my death, my choice."