A lot of things have been happening lately in the right-to-die movement, and they are worth recording here. Perhaps the most powerful statement so far made was made by Tony Nicklinson, who, after losing his High Court case for the right to die, lost hear, refused to eat, and died a few days later, finally free of the burden of a life which was becoming increasingly intolerable for him. That the courts would not set a precedent — and there is no obvious reason why they could not — because this is a matter for a Parliament which has shown scant interest in the issue for years, was a great disappointment, not only to Tony, but to many other people who are seeking relief from intolerable conditions of life.
A lot of commentators have remarked that the court could not have acted, for to have acceded to Tony Nicklinson’s request would have been, effectively, to legalise euthanasia, and there seem to be a lot of people who are unwilling to take that extra step, including many in the right-to-die movement. That they are completely wrong about this doesn’t seem to dawn on them. It may be that the preferred way is to provide the means for assisted suicide, so that the person who is suffering is the one who actually has to do the deed, but this excludes, by definition, all those who cannot do the deed, like Tony Nicklinson, and others who have lost the use of their bodies. Many people with MS and ALS end up in this state, and the limitation of assisted dying to assisted suicide means that these people will be forced to make the decision to die earlier than they otherwise might have done, because they would know that, once trapped in their bodies, they are trapped forever, unless they wish to starve themselves to death. But what people who was assistance in dying want is to be in full possession of their faculties when they die, and those who starve themselves to death eventually pass into a comatose state, and then they die. Why they cannot be helped simply makes no sense. It is significant that those who have fought this in court are those who are or who were likely to be in a state where assisted suicide would have been of no use to them. Tony Nicklinson, Diane Purdy, and Diane Pretty: all except Ms. Purdy were unable, at the time of their court challenges, were unable to die by receiving assistance in suicide. And still, unfortunately, the right-to-die organisation in Britain, Dignity in Dying, has not got the point.
Why is it taking so long for them to get this particular point? It’s not all that hard to understand. Two main points about assisted dying are these: (i) to set people’s minds and rest, and to let them know that, when they are ready to die, assistance will be provided should they ask for it; and (ii) to provide people the longest life possible. The second condition cannot be met unless euthanasia (that is, helping someone to die by having someone other than the person requesting assistance administering the fatal medicine) is part of the mix, because if assisted suicide alone is offered, some people’s lives will be foreshortened by any prospect which makes it seem likely that they will no longer be able to administer the fatal dose themselves.
Nevertheless, as I have said, there are some positive signs that people are at least starting to recognise that this is a change that has to be made, that people’s freedom at the end of life, or when their condition is such as to make life intolerable for them, cannot be arbitrarily restricted, and that their choices regarding when and how to die should be honoured. Why should this come as a surprise to anyone? In secular democracies, like those of the West, people make choices about practically everything of significance in their lives: education, vocation, marriage or sexual partnership, whether to have children or not, the adoption of children, their pastimes, interests, hobbies, involvement in politics, religion — all of these things are matters of individual decision. Why should it surprise anyone that people who are accustomed to making their own decisions in practically every dimension of their lives should also want to be in control of their dying? After all, dying from some diseases can be unrelieved torment, and living in some conditions likewise. So, why is anyone surprised that people who are accustomed to control, do not want to be out of control when it comes to the way their lives end?
Yet, for some inexplicable reason, some people are, or at least they express surprise that this is what people should want to do. Margaret Somerville, Canada’s most vociferous opponent of assisted dying, a media darling who does what all broadcasters want their contacts to do, namely, to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of, in this case, words uttered, thinks that the demand for assisted dying is a result of what she calls, so colourfully, an intense individualism, which she clearly deprecates. But of course it is the outcome of individualism, of the huge role that the individual has been given by the freedoms of modern secular society to make decisions for themselves. But Somerville, not being particularly bright about this, goes on to ask why it is that, after millennia of opposition to suicide and the associated business of assisting people to die, we are suddenly talking about it. However, she casts it in terms of the entire past being opposed to suicide and assisted dying. She apparently never heard of the Greeks and Romans, where these things were freely discussed, and, save for a couple of exceptions, were widely approved. Even Plato, in the Laws, makes it clear that there are occasions on which it is perfectly reasonable for a person to die by suicide, if a person is burdened either by intolerable disease or by disgrace. But the Stoics and Epicureans were generally in favour, holding that, while the gods had provided only one way into the world, they had provided thousands of ways out.
So, what are the positive signs now that the movement towards an acceptance of assisted dying has been advanced recently?
First, of course, is the case of Tony Nicklinson itself. This may be seen as a setback, for did he not lose the case? Yes, he lost, and many people saw that as an injustice, and said as much. There is nothing that makes us as aware of our bondage to have it graphically illustrated as it was in Tony Nicklinson’s case. Many people saw this as justice denied. Besides, there was a heroism about Tony’s have taken the case to the High Court. After all, he might have gone to Switzerland, but he saw no reason that he should not be able to have the freedom to die in his own country, surrounded by his family and friends. The recent tribute by his daughter is clear enough evidence that the forces of unreason suffered a defeat when Tony’s case before the High Court failed. It is not only a tribute to her father; it also argues the case for assisted dying clearly and concisely. How can one not respond to her heartfelt cry?
He was 58 and the thought of another 30 years locked in really frightened him. Seven years ago, a stroke broke Dad’s body, but it was the British legal system that broke his heart.
Those who saw the picture of Tony after the judgement had been delivered can be in no doubt that this was a man whose sentence to life was a cruel denial of his freedom. It is time that we saw that this kind of coercion differs not at all from slavery.
Second, the case of Evans Mott in New Zealand. According to stuff.co in New Zealand:
Evans James Mott, 61, was discharged without conviction in the High Court at Auckland this morning after he pleaded guilty to a charge of aiding and abetting the suicide of Rosemary Mott, who died at her home in Paritai Dr, Orakei, on December 28, last year.Evans Mott’s wife Rosemary had an advanced stage of MS. Both Evans Mott and his wife, we are told, believed in the sanctity of life, but held that life was more than just bodily function.
Lawyer Ron Mansfield earlier told the court Mott believed in the sanctity of life, as did his wife Rosie.
The reality for her was that life is more than just bodily function. Life, for her, was the full experience.
Mr Mott would have been her hero.
Rosie was suffering from an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis that gave her tremors, incontinence, made it hard for her to feed herself and made it hard to walk.
Third, there is the case of the anonymous couple who are appealing to the High Court in Ireland for the right to die. Significantly, this also involves the case of a woman with multiple sclerosis. The grounds for the appeal to the court are now becoming well-known:
The couple’s legal team are expected to argue the legislation is unconstitutional as an able-bodied person can end their own life without penalty, yet someone with a disability or terminal illness can’t do so as anyone who helps them faces prosecution.
The prohibition of assisted suicide means that a person with MS, as in this case, must decide to die (as my wife Elizabeth did) before they would otherwise do so, because the prohibition of assistance means that they have to act while they are still able to do it on their own. This, according to Diane Pretty, Sue Rodriguez, Gloria Taylor, Tony Nicklinson, and the unnamed appellant who joined Tony Nicklinson in his case, is an unjust discrimination against those who are unable to die by suicide without assistance.
Fourth, the Member of the European Parliament, Chris Davies, has written a pamphlet — entitled “Our Right to Die” –supporting assisted dying, and arguing that the time is right for a change in the law. He told the Oldham Evening Chronicle:
We are the only main party with a policy looking for legislation to be introduced along the lines of that in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, where the law permits medical assistance to die if the patient is suffering with no hope of recovery.
This issue is not going to go away.
The people who go to places like Switzerland are determined and strong-willed people, whose wishes should be respected.
It is often said that legalising assisted dying would put the vulnerable at risk. Not only is there no evidence that this is true — generally those who choose assisted dying are more educated, more accustomed to control in their lives, have a greater sense of the shape of their lives as a whole — the apt response was made by Tony Nicklinson:
By all means protect the vulnerable. By vulnerable I mean those who cannot make decisions for themselves — just don’t include me.
The attempt of the “care not killing” crowd to discredit the ability of those like Tony Nicklinson to make up their own minds, has a tendency to infantilise those who are considered to be vulnerable. That there are people who might be vulnerable is no doubt true, but simply to classify all those who are in a condition where they might wish to die as vulnerable is itself to take advantage of their supposed vulnerability.
Fifth, the new British Health Minister Anna Soubry thinks that the time for new legislation regarding assistance in dying is now. She has even gone so far as to say to the Times that it is “ridiculous and appalling” that Britons had to
“go abroad to end their life” (see BBC report here). However, since she opposes euthanasia, any change in the law she proposes would not help people like Tony Nicklinson. But it is surely an advance when a health minister calls the present situation ridiculous.
Sixth, and by no means least, are the Report of the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on end-of-life decision-making, and the judgement in the British Columbia Supreme Court which struck down the criminal provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code regarding assisted suicide, and gave the government a year to make it right. and gave permission for Gloria Taylor, within the year, to receive help to die, the only person in Canada who may legally receive such assistance. Of course, the Canadian government has appealed the ruling, and has obtained an injunction against the effects of the ruling that the assisted suicide provisions of the Criminal Code violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the injunction against Gloria Taylor’s right to receive assistance in dying, though obtained, was subsequently struck down.
Seventh, there is an indication that the proposal to legalise assisted dying in Massachusetts may succeed in the coming November elections. Time will tell. If it does succeed, Massachusetts will be the fourth state in the Union to provide legalised assisted dying.
No doubt readers of this post can add other positive signs, but I would say that the tide of change is definitely moving in a positive direction. This will dismay the religious opponents of assisted dying, but will come as a welcome relief to those of us who want a choice in the manner of our dying, and believe that it is an offence against the person to force people to die in the way prescribed by their diseases. There is at least hope that the religious death cult will not prevail.