Yesterday I read out, for my daughter and her partner, the paragraph from Allison Pearson’s oped in the Telegraph on Tony Nicklinson’s right to die, where she expresses the opinion that, since his life is too horrible to live, he shouldn’t mind dying horribly in order to escape such a fate. The first comment I got was, “She’s a sociopath.” And so she is, or near enough that it makes very little difference. Here is the paragraph in question:
None of us would want to be shut up in the prison of ourselves with only a blinking eyelid to communicate with the world. Even so, I’m afraid I think that Tony Nicklinson’s desire to change the law of the land so he can be killed in the comfort of his home is wrong. Others suffer as he does – Professor Stephen Hawking comes to mind – but they make the best of the dreadful hand that fate has dealt them. Tony Nicklinson could refuse food, but his wife objects that starvation is a horrible way to die. Yet isn’t Tony Nicklinson’s argument that his life is too horrible to live?
It really doesn’t get much more unfeeling than this. As someone has pointed out, Stephen Hawking is a special case. First, he has a very unusual form of ALS. Most of them die fairly quickly in a few years. Some of them die as miserably as Diane Pretty (and see here as well) feared she would. But then Diane Pretty, like Tony Nicklinson, fought for her rights in court, and the legal ground has shifted considerably since Diane took her case to the High Court in Britain, and then to the European Court of Human Rights. Both of them turned her down, and she died as she feared she might. But, hey, what difference does that make? After all, her life was a misery. That’s why she wanted to die. So, why not go out miserably too? That’s the logic of the sociopathic journalist Allison Pearson.
Tony Nicklinson’s pain is not hers. She can’t feel his frustration, though she is generous enough to say that “[n]one of us would want to be shut up in the prison of ourselves with only a blinking eyelid to communicate with the world.” But still, it would be wrong to help him escape that imprisonment, that imposed slavery. I bet Allison Pearson doesn’t approve of chattel slavery, that she would be horrified at the thought that the laws of Britain might classify a group of people as slaves who had no right, not even the possibility, of living their lives as they chose. And yet she seems quite calm and complacent about consigning Tony Nicklinson to that compelled living, unable to choose for himself, except, of course, that he could starve himself to death, since it would be an offence to force him to receive nourishment.
I first encountered this apparent sociopathalogy in the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in a letter to me, in response to telling him that the last few straws of my faith had been blown away by the wind of his words opposing Lord Joffe’s assisted dying bill in the House of Lords, said that he was far more concerned about disabled people who believed that their lives would be endangered by assisted dying legislation. There’s not a shred of evidence that any such danger exists, but, in his letter, he clearly stated — well, let’s have the very words themselves. Speaking of those who vote on assisted dying legislation, he said (and I want you to notice the modal words he uses for each circumstance):
Those who vote have to balance the possibilities of acute suffering against what many see as a perfectly real and concrete risk to the vulnerable. [personal communication; my italics]
Whereas the truth of the matter is exactly the reverse of this, for the very real and acute pain of the suffering is being balanced against a possible risk to the vulnerable. We know about the pain and the suffering, and how intolerable it can become, because those who are suffering and dying are telling us that they want to be in control of their dying. So, in response to my concern that the church was demanding that people be forced to die a “natural” death, the archbishop thought a sufficient response was to express his concern about the possibility that the vulnerable might be put at risk. Yet this is only a scare tactic used by the church to convince legislators to vote against assisted dying legislation. It has no substance whatever — as becomes quite clear when the evidence from the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Oregon is studied impartially — and it is not the reason that the religious oppose assisted dying. There may indeed be some contentious points, and some apparent irregularities in the way that the law is applied in the Netherlands and Belgium, but the only reasonable conclusion is that no one is being victimised because of their vulnerability.
The next time I came upon this sociopathic tendency amongst opponents of assisted dying was when reading Ronald Lindsay’s book, Future Bioethics. As he says, people sometimes try to trivialise the problem by remarking on the short period that the dying suffer at the end:
Essentially, the argument is, “What’s the big deal? They’ll be dead soon anyway.” 
And then he quotes Yale Kamisar to the effect that allowing a person to suffer a little longer is surely not too great a price to pay for the sanctity of life (60). It is significant that a man with such opinions is said by Wikipedia to have “written extensively in the area of euthanasia.” (my italics) Nor are we surprised to hear that Neil Gorsuch, a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals who wrote a book on assisted suicide and euthanasia, breezily suggested that those who request assistance in dying are making ”more of a lifestyle choice” (Lindsay, 60). No surprise, because the only way to deny that the suffering and the dying might have a right to assistance in dying is by making light of their predicament. But it is peculiar that, as a judge, Gorsuch could not see that, by regarding assisted dying as a lifestyle choice, he was placing it in that class of actions which invoke issues of freedom and human rights — yet he opposes the legalisation of assisted dying. Nevertheless, by expressing his view in this throw-away expression — “A lifestyle choice?”, Lisdsay asks, “Like taking up golf?” (60) — it is clear that he has no sense of the urgency and desperation that is being expressed, no appreciation of the depth of suffering involved, when people are dying or suffering from conditions which make life unbearable.
The same tendency turned up in Pope John Paul II’s (Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła) consideration of assisted dying in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). He gave it short shrift indeed. He thought it appropriate to say that, when people are asking in desperation for their dying to be hastened, they are not really asking for help to die at all; what they are really asking for is for someone else to hope for them when all hope is gone (§ 67). He was either unwilling or unable to see into the depth of that hopelessness, and respond with compassion. All he could do was to utter empty religious phrases about hope, as though someone else hoping in the presence of such hopelessness could transform the situation into one of holiness, could somehow sanctify that suffering.
Kids who torture and kill family pets, and go on to torture and kill human beings in horrific ways are called sociopaths. They cannot empathise. Asked what was most distinctive about the war criminals at Nuremberg, the psychologist Gustave Gilbert (during the war an intelligence officer in the US Army) suggested in his book, Nuremberg Diary, that it was their inability to empathise with their victims. In what way do the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, Kamisar and Gorsuch, and other like-minded folk, differ from the sociopathic kid or the torturer of helpless human beings? True, they do not take pleasure from torturing others. It may even be true, as Eike-Henner Kluge says, that “empathy is a very unreliable foundation on which to base a theory prescribing who shall live and who shall die,” (The Practice of Death, 39) but that is not what is at issue here. The question is: Who shall have a right to decide when it is in their best interests to die? Who should be able to decide when their suffering has become unendurable? No one wants there to be a prescriptive theory about who shall live and who shall die. That is an entirely misleading idea, at least so far as competent adults go. But, at the very least, one does not expect — what seems in fact to be the case — that those in high places, who have some determinate say over whether or not assisted dying should be legalised, should so lack empathy for the suffering of those who claim that right, that they cannot see and acknowledge that suffering may be so egregiously destructive of person and personality as to deserve more compassion, to make them more reluctant to refuse them the right to die as and when they choose.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to me, I heard his words as an attempt to tell me that Elizabeth’s suffering was somehow of less importance than the validity of his argument against the legalisation of assisted dying. There are theological reasons for opposing assisted dying. I understand that. I do not think the theological arguments are decisive, even in theology; and I certainly do not think they should supercede all other arguments that can be made in favour of assisted dying. Theology has no place in the public square. No doubt this is why he did not make theological arguments in his letter to me. But when he dismissed real suffering as a possibility, and elevated mere possibilities to the level of real and concrete risks: that displayed a sociopathic indifference to suffering that was breathtaking in its lack of compassion. It displayed clearly, like Allison Pearson’s unthinking cruelty, a near sociopathic indifference to suffering. The archbishop is not a sociopath, nor, I suspect, is Allison Pearson; but something interfered with their ability to express genuine compassion for those who are experiencing what, to them, are intolerable sufferings, or are likely to become so. Hitchens said that religion poisons everything. It certainly does poison the springs of human compassion. Mere zygotes become more important than the women who bear them; mere possibilities trump the most terrible suffering that human beings can endure. This is religion at work. Why should we be accommodating or kind to inhumanity so profound and so enduring?