Assisted dying: Whose life is it anyway?

choiceThe religious might say that your life belongs to God, not to you. Ending it before God wills is thus a blasphemous sin. Most secular people would hold, instead, that your life is your own. If, through an incurable medical condition, your life has become so insufferable that you wish to end it, then that should be your choice. Further, given that your condition is likely debilitating, it would be decent and compassionate for society to assist you if necessary.

Christianity has long had the defect of seeing suffering as somehow virtuous, to be endured for the good of your soul. This attitude was exemplified by “Mother” Teresa, who explained that:

There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.

And:

All that suffering — where would the world be without it? Innocent suffering is the same as the suffering of Jesus. He suffered for us and all the innocent suffering is joined to his in the redemption. It is co-redemption. That is helping to save the world from worse things.

And:

We need a pure heart to see the hand of God, to feel the hand of God, to recognize the gift of God in our suffering. He allows us to share in his suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.

People like Teresa actually want the dying to endure suffering, and for that suffering to continue for however long it takes. You would not treat a dog like that. Quite literally, you would not treat a dog like that; if things got bad enough you would have the compassion to end that life early.

Why do we not do so for humans? Well, obviously, the human life is of vastly greater worth. But the greater worth of human life is in its quality, not its quantity. And who is better placed to evaluate the quality of someone’s life than they are themselves?

If your dog, in great pain from terminal cancer, had the capability to beg to be humanely put down, surely you would not reply that, well, dog, since you seem to have the capacity to be aware of your situation, and to ask for death, that means that, no, I cannot accede to your request, you must continue to suffer.

Yet that’s how we treat humans. Surely, if a human positively asks for an assisted death, that should only add to our willingness to provide it? It is, after all, their life and their decision, is it not?

Religious leaders (though not the religious rank-and-file) think not. Parliament is due to vote on an Assisted Dying Bill this week. Polls show that 82% of the public (including 79% of religious people and 86% of those with a disability) support such a law. But religious leaders are fighting a rearguard action, writing to every MP to oppose the Bill, and — unfortunately — such is the residual deference shown to religious leaders that they may prevail. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby claims that the letter was “not an attempt to push the religious viewpoint”, but if so, why did they write as a group of religious leaders?

“We recognise that [suicide] is a tragedy and we, rightly, do all that we can to prevent suicide”, writes the Archbishop. Well, no we don’t, not always; Justin Welby is factually wrong. People can decide that their lives are so full of suffering that they no longer wish to continue. Relatives often recognise this, and out of love and compassion, do what they can to assist. Yes, there is tragedy, but it is the illness and the suffering that is the tragedy, not the wished-for release.

The religious leaders’ letter offers some platitudes to those facing terminal suffering, but ignores their hopes out of concern that some elderly people might feel pressured into asking for an early death that they don’t actually want.

Yes, that is a legitimate concern, although it is hard to tell whether it is the letter writers’ real concern, or merely the one that they think will be most persuasive (since they know that nowadays an argument based on theology will, quite rightly, be ignored by the majority).

I, for one, though, fear an extended suffering in an incapacitated state far more than I fear the possibility of being brow-beaten into asking for a death that I didn’t want. If it were the case that I was persuadable, then likely I would no longer want life very much anyhow. The polls show that the overwhelming majority of the public think like me; 82% really is a lot. The religious lobby should no longer have a veto.

Welby worries that elderly people might wish not to be a burden on their relatives. But if they really and genuinely wish that, then who is Welby to insist that they must go on living? Welby and others seem to regard a desire not to be a burden as an illegitimate reason, to be ignored and discounted. And yes, we should have safeguards to prevent people being pressured against their will, but if they are the ones who wish not to be a burden then who is Welby to over-rule them? Whose life is it anyway?

While I hope the bill passes, to my mind it doesn’t go far enough. While I don’t want the “slippery slope” that opponents continually point to, I do want to take several deliberate and considered paces further down the line.

The Bill allows for assisted dying only for those in the last six months of life. There is no rational argument for such a limit, it is merely a sop to the Bill’s opponents. Tony Nicklinson was so paralysed after a stroke that he found his life a “living nightmare”. The fact that there was no end in sight, and that he had to endure it for years, not just six months, with no prospect of release, only added to the “nightmare”. In the end he refused food to starve himself to death. Society refused to help him.

The Bill also insists that the doctor may only assist, and that the person themselves must administer the fatal dose. But this will only cause people to opt for death too early. Already Britons travel to Dignitas in Switzerland much too early, because they fear becoming too incapacitated to travel. The fear that, if one delays sufficiently long that one becomes incapacitated, then society will no longer allow you an assisted death, only adds an extra worry. People would worry less and opt to go on living longer if they are reassured that, if things get too bad, all they need do is ask.

When it comes down to it, assisted dying is about autonomy. Do you have the biggest say over your life and your body, or do other people, based on their own religious opinions (not on yours) have the right of veto? In a secular society the answer is the former. We should also recognise that it is not mere quantity of life that matters, and that we are under no obligation to eke out human life regardless, but rather it is our quality of life that really matters. And we ourselves are the best ones to decide about our own quality of life.

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