Assisted Dying – suicide is painless (but complicated)

Posted on: 10 April 2012 by Alexander Hay

The recent report by the Commission on Assisted Dying makes many bold recommendations, but does not ask hard enough questions of itself or the implications of what it recommends

assisted dyingDeath is seldom easy, but we still cling onto the hope that it will be quick, fast and merciful, perhaps because we are nowadays inclined to see life as conditional and any degree of suffering to be a terrible fate.

Of course, this may well be an improvement on the view that we are somehow humanised by pain and misery, or that spending our last days on earth attached to tubes and addled with opiates to be a moral alternative. The truth is that we are ill-equipped to deal with our mortality and are drawn either to wallow in it or avoid its hard edges whenever possible.

The assisted dying or euthanasia debate is a case in point, with those in favour of voluntary suicide dressing it up in saccharine terms like 'dying with dignity' or 'the right to choose', glossing over the fact that neither bodily decay nor post mortems are particularly dignified, or there being little in the way of 'choice' in the most honest sense of the word when your options seem only to be either dying quick or dying slow.

Pro-lifers, meanwhile, seem neither willing nor able to comprehend where their own rhetoric takes them, where you can be kept alive against your will and lingering deaths are made even more drawn-out and painful.

It is this inability by both sides to see a broader picture that makes the debate both rancorous and morally limited. And little change from this outlook can be found in the report published last week by the Commission on Assisted Dying.

Its findings conclude that 'assisted suicide' (euphemism being a bad habit shared by both sides), should be made available to terminally ill adults with less than a year to live. In so saying, it demonstrates a limited set of answers for a difficult question. What if, for example, you are a terminally ill 16 year old? What if you have eight months to live, but a radical new invasive treatment may save your life? And what if you're terminally ill, in great pain and have 14 months to live? Pro-euthanasia activists sometimes offer a far too clean, tidy and uncomplicated view of death, which is infrequently any of those things.

The report also tries to have it both ways, calling for assisted dying only to be allowed if it is self-administered because this would be 'euthanasia' otherwise (by such a yardstick, one should also source one's own overdose and preferably mix it up in your kitchen), and that end-of-life care be improved so no one would feel 'pushed' to making a decision.

This is far too optimistic, once again. What if the patient is paralysed or unable to swallow (assuming that any authorised method would follow the example set by the Dignitas clinic) without assistance? Likewise, improving care may not in itself make people reconsider - with euthanasia comes the possibility that it would gradually become obligatory rather than voluntary. After all, hospice beds cost money and no one likes to burden their families...

Advocates of both the report and what it calls for would at this point say that at least this process would clarify the law and make end of life decisions easier. (Once again, we return to the rhetoric of convenience.) It certainly may do so in many cases, but it is a far too tidy vision of what the process would entail. Death is complicated, and suicide is simply another complicating factor. The report does not ask why death is seen as an escape, or even why their approach to assisted dying would be any better than any other. Fundamental issues of self determination and the extent of responsibility that we have to others are, meanwhile, simply not addressed.

The other main problem with the report is that it is biased at its very core. By definition, being funded by the wavering pro-choice Terry Pratchett, himself subject to the sort of condition that is often cited as a justification for euthanasia, suggests a strong conflict of interest -though paradoxically, the author has since accused the report of not going far enough.

What reply would the report's supporters offer in return? Well, they can always point to one of the most famous pro-lifers, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died peacefully while on expensive life support, even as the terminally ill in her order's care were left to slowly die in shabby 'Houses of Death', beatified by their misery. But then, pointing out the flaws of the opposing side's arguments seems to be the only consistent thing either side is able to manage.

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Alexander Hay

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