According to the Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by Lord Falconer, there’s a ‘strong case’ for killing terminally ill patients (those with less than 12 months left to live). His Lordship didn’t use the word ‘killing’, but that’s what helping others kill themselves amounts to — just as aiding and abetting murder is barely distinguishable from perpetrating it.
Had Lord Falconer based his case on hypothetically assisting in the suicide of his ex-flatmate Tony Blair, he’d almost convince me: I’d find the aesthetic, moral and hygienic argument to be irrefutable in that one instance. (Admittedly, the patient isn’t going through needless suffering, but he has caused it for many others.) As it is, the case isn’t so much strong as pathetic.
Now I’m aware how futile it would be to argue the contra position from religion, even though no workable substitute for Judaeo-Christian morality has ever been found. However, one senses that hostility to religion is too deeply ingrained for such an argument to carry much weight. But just for the sake of historical perspective it’s useful to remember that, in Christianity, suicide is a graver transgression than murder. As it’s the only sin that can’t be repented, suicides, unlike murderers, aren’t allowed Christian burial rites. The assumption is that a suicide doesn’t just destroy a human being but, implicitly, the very idea of human life. As he wasn’t the one who created it, he isn’t free to destroy it.
But, seeing that you aren’t convinced by this appeal to Christianity, I’m happy that the secular argument against ‘assisted suicide’ is just as powerful. As someone who has been warned several times of a lifespan measured in months (the last time was six years ago), I’m delighted to know that doctors can be wrong. And they are wrong not because they’re bad doctors, but because only God knows… oops, sorry, how uncool of me, nobody knows how long the patient has left. The case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, springs to mind. In August, 2009, he was released from prison on compassionate grounds because, according to the Scottish oncologists, he had three months left to live. According to the papers, however, he’s still alive, if not necessarily well. Any honest doctor, unless of course he’s Lord Falconer’s friend, will know many similar cases where the more macabre predictions were proved wrong.
As to needless suffering, a priest may tell you that no suffering is needless. But even the most atheist of doctors will know that there are ways of alleviating even the worst physical pain. A combination of hospice care and opiates can reduce suffering to a minimum, if not eliminate it altogether. The patient may not be comfortable, but he’ll be alive — and so will the hope, however slender, that he may get better.
Having said that, doctors regularly make therapeutic decisions involving life and, regrettably, death. It may be argued, spuriously, that the decision to withdraw treatment isn’t morally different from slipping the patient a lethal pill. When doctors decide, say, that a cancer is inoperable, and no chemotherapy would work, they effectively sentence the patient to death. Policing such decision-making would be neither possible nor advisable. However, there’s a big moral difference between a doctor admitting he’s helpless, and actively abetting a suicide: realising that you can’t help a drowning man because you don’t know how to swim isn’t the same as pushing him into the river or, for that matter, helping him climb onto the bridge railings.
Though doctors have always practised passive euthanasia by withdrawing treatment, legalising active euthanasia is fraught with horrific consequences. If it’s made legal, sooner or later it’ll be made compulsory. Requirements for patient’s consent will gradually become more nebulous until they disappear into the fog of hypocrisy. Witness Holland, where, for all practical purposes, euthanasia has been legalised and enthusiastically promoted by the government. As a result, many elderly people don’t seek medical help because they’re afraid that the doctors will kill them. Perhaps that was the general idea: the fewer old people go to doctors, the cheaper will medicine be for everyone else.
Now that the NHS, and therefore the state, has replaced God as the object of worship, one detects among government stooges a distinct longing for a cull of wrinklies. After all, those freeloaders receive a lion’s share of NHS funds while contributing precious little to them. I’m sure that the government hasn’t issued a secret directive to that effect: even our politicians aren’t so crass. However, those with their noses to the wind sense the inner imperative, and act accordingly. Hence Lord Falconer, in cahoots with 1,300 ‘expert’ NHS worshippers, with their ‘strong’ case. Let me tell you, the case for keeping the likes of him out of public life is far stronger.