As September 11th approaches and another attempt is made to change UK law to allow “assisted dying”, I add my thoughts and concerns to the big debate.
LET’S BE HONEST ABOUT LANGUAGE
It’s interesting (and concerning) how, over more recent years, the language we use has evolved into one that makes what would have once been considered unthinkable, not only acceptable nowadays but even virtuous. “Dying” is a completely normal word because it describes something that happens to all of us without exception, so it’s an acceptable word. “Suicide”, however, has an entirely different connotation with which I don’t believe many people would wish to be associated since, when all is said and done, it’s just another word for “killing”. I have absolutely no doubts that the two words have been deliberately conflated to make the Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill palatable. The same can be said about the renaming several years ago of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society to Dignity in Dying which, of course, sounds wonderful.
Apart from this rather insidious drift in our vocabulary another thing that bothers me in the semantics department is the liberal use of accusatory language to bolster ones position. For example, Dignity in Dying says on its website (scroll to the bottom): “The case for change is clear – unbearable suffering, inflicted on a dying person who wishes to die, is unjust and unacceptable.” Since this bill is, I think, intended to address the kind of suffering experienced through terminal illness then it is disingenuous to use the word “inflicted” as if to say that by opposing this bill you are directly responsible for the suffering. This is emotional manipulation. If there is a genuine case for legalising assisted “dying” then there is no need to spin the argument; the suffering alone protests itself. This same approach is used across the board on difficult issues so that, as another example, before same-sex marriage was legalised, anyone opposing its introduction was vilified for “imposing” their view – which is difficult to do when your view simply upholds what is currently in law.
That kind of language simply serves to discredit any opposition and undermine the spirit of democracy.
THE MOTIVES BEHIND THIS BILL
There seem to be two main motives for wanting to legalise the concept of assisted suicide (I’m being honest about language!): to give control to individuals over when they die, and compassion for the sufferer.
The first is actually a rather strange idea if we are to place a high value on the words we use and their meaning. Since, in general, none of us know when we will die, and since we have an innate expectation (and hope) that it will happen naturally rather than be done to us because the human propensity is towards life, why are we at this point in history introducing a legal framework that effectively seeks to make what is natural a human right? Why was this never done in a previous era when our medical knowledge was far less advanced and suffering from disease incomparably worse? I imagine it was because the idea of such an intervention was simply unthinkable. Instead we were spurred on to discover ways of mitigating suffering, and we have been incredibly successful.
To introduce such a “right” would directly contradict the most supreme human right to life protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, this bill would not technically give anyone absolute control over their death since it involves a third party who enables them to take their own life. The control will belong to the enabler, who may conceivably change their mind!
Concerning compassion, this is very difficult because it’s an emotive word that describes an extremely noble disposition. In my view, compassion is so much more than feeling (justifiably) sorry for someone, and wanting to rescue them or change their circumstances and take their suffering away. Compassion is always life-affirming, and when life becomes painful it doesn’t necessarily heal – it certainly doesn’t kill – but it most definitely comes alongside to accompany the sufferer every step of the way as if to take on a share of it. We are more than the sum of our physical parts; the human spirit is what drives us both to achieve and to endure. (As a Christian I can testify that, when the Spirit of God takes hold, you are enabled to move to a whole new unimaginable level of possibilities).
Dying is, in itself, an utterly hideous thing and I see nothing at all dignified in pre-empting it, particularly by handing the reins over to someone else. There is unspeakable dignity, however, in living courageously – secure in who you are irrespective of your circumstances – to the very end, with others to accompany you on your way.
WHAT DOES THE UK POPULATION THINK?
If it wasn’t for the farcical nature of the public consultation on same-sex marriage I would unhesitatingly say that this issue warrants a full consultation to inform the debate. Nevertheless, there are a couple of points that I’d like to make here:
Firstly, the issue of opinion polls. Dignity in Dying insist that there is “overwhelming” public support for this bill reporting 82% in favour from a Populus poll taken in March this year (though only 47% strongly so). However, a bit like our local paper’s annual poll asking residents if they would support a council tax rise, it can be an extremely disingenuous method of gauging public opinion without providing more than basic facts or putting the question in context. I have read the Populus poll and there is nothing at all in there that informs the respondents of the possible consequences of passing such a law. In fact, I was rather amazed at how political and how leading the questions were. Its overall validity is instantly brought into question when you observe that almost every single respondent category is at least 70% in favour. That is not how polls are supposed to work. The stark absence of informative facts is quite shocking considering the issue at stake and the fact that, as much as politicians would have everyone believe, it is not true (in my opinion) that the public knows best. The modern public is so dependent on media for “knowledge” and so lacking in diligence to dig below the surface for truth, that they are a sitting target for any kind of diet that the mainstream media or research organisations are paid to feed them.
If you compare that poll with a previous one by ComRes in July 2014 (commissioned by CARE) which asked a similar general question that yielded a not totally dissimilar result (73% in favour) you will see that the picture shifts significantly when subsequent questions relating to risk, among others, are asked. Care Not Killing gives a nice clear analysis showing that asking those hugely important questions resulted in a drop in overall support for the bill down to 43%, neck-and-neck with the 43% that oppose it. So, again, it’s all to do with how language is used as well as what information you choose to include and omit. If 43% is a truly accurate indication of public opinion on an issue of human life of all things, then our politicians cannot take that as a green light.
Further to this point I must just mention the difference in campaign pitching between the two camps of thought in this debate. Dignity in Dying, who leads the supporters of the bill, appears to have significant resources and countless high profile patrons. Whereas opposing groups such as Care Not Killing and Not Dead Yet are light weights in that respect focusing more on presenting a bigger, balanced picture rather than what comes across as a rather lopsided argument that’s heavily dependent on individual anecdote and celebrity endorsement (is Hugh Grant, for example, really an authority on this issue?). Yet on the occasions that I have personally attended rallies outside Parliament the Dignity in Dying contingent have been celebrity-free and, more significantly, almost totally without representation from those with disabilities.
In contrast, those in opposition at the rallies are invariably led by large numbers of people with disabilities many of whom are bona fide representatives. To me this would indicate that there is no general demand for this bill within the disabled population, but there is instead a huge concern about the consequences should it become law.
Secondly, I am concerned how well, if at all, those most likely to be affected by this bill are being consulted. I understand that all the major disability rights advocacy groups in Britain oppose a change in the current law, as do the majority of GPs and professional medical bodies such as the British Medical Association. It would be virtually impossible to gauge what the older population in my city of Brighton and Hove (65+ years, representing >13%) would think about such a bill since so many are in care homes whose motivation and obligation is to preserve life come what may. However, I fear for the quiet, frail ones who feel, or are made to feel, a burden to others including by their own families. There are many, many of those but very few Debbie Purdys who are exceptional, and are strong enough to campaign and not just simply voice a valid opinion. I also fear for the local family GP who may be put under all kinds of pressure to sign the necessary declaration. The conscience clause in this draft bill is woefully inadequate.
WHAT SAFEGUARDS WILL THERE REALLY BE?
I have gone through the full text of the bill and have some concerns about its current form including clauses relating to safeguarding. For example, there is no requirement for someone to be present to regulate the health professional assisting the patient. There is instead an entire dependency on their abiding by whatever regulations will be written subsequent to the bill becoming law. Along with the fact that, under section 10 (offences) a deliberate act of disinformation by a medical professional that could conceivably result in wrongful death, will only attract a maximum 5-year prison sentence, it looks to me as though safeguarding on the medical side is very dubious leaving open the real possibility of foul play.
This is not meant as a histrionic slur on that profession but, considering the abuse of the current abortion laws (with respect to the two doctor signature requirement, as well as gender selection), I cannot help but suspect that accountability will again be lost. In the end, even if this bill were written in the most water-tight manner possible, I don’t believe that we can be confident any longer in our legal system to protect, and I base that on experience, evidence and professional opinion.
We are not in good times.
THE PERSONAL TEST
I previously mentioned anecdotal evidence which I think is one valid form of information but by no means the only, or even dominant, one. Whilst there may be a good number of people who profess the virtues of this bill from a standpoint of personal experience, I would guess that there are vastly more with a different testimony who simply haven’t spoken, perhaps because they haven’t been asked or even because they are unaware of this bill.
My own contribution at this level would be the story of my mother who battled for over 10 years with aggressive breast cancer at a time when medical know-how wasn’t up to today’s standards. Her suffering (by which I mean physical pain) was tremendous as was the emotional trauma of those who looked on. As her daughter I was particularly close to her and, therefore, privy to every graphic detail of her physical deterioration, tragically exacerbated by clumsy medical interventions.
So, a seeming total nightmare for a sensitive young soul like me who saw her (adopted) mother as her very own Messiah since, in my eyes, she was about as perfect as any human could be and, therefore, in that sense entirely undeserving of such a malicious disease. And yet, despite all of that, neither she nor any of my family ever contemplated intervention by suicide. Hers would have been a classic case for this bill. When she was given one year maximum to live, no matter the suffering she had already endured and the certainty that the cancer was terminal, there was no question of pre-empting natural death.
I should mention that, at that time, I was not yet a Christian but the grace and dignity and courage my mother demonstrated throughout was a compelling factor in my joyous submission to Jesus Christ barely a year after her death. You see, instead of wanting to do the impossible and somehow rid her of her pain, it was instinctive just to try to find ways of sharing in the suffering albeit in other ways than physical. That was when she was still at home. When, however, she went into the hospice (how wonderful that we were near St. Christopher’s – the first modern hospice in the UK, built by Dame Cecily Saunders) it seemed so much easier on her and, in fact, her last few days were spent characteristically at the bedside of other patients in her ward making sure they were alright. What a gift to me from God she was, and how marvellous that He did not leave me an orphan (for the second time) but called me His own so soon after.
Every story of this kind is different and most are very moving, of course they are. But I dare not base any decisions concerning the law (that is essentially there to protect life) on such individual experiences. Those dear people that suffer greatly and feel that they cannot bear it are nevertheless significantly in the minority. The law is not the right context to deal with the individual situation here and it’s a category mistake to suppose that it is. The law, in my understanding, sets the boundaries for the wider community. The medical profession is there for the individual and it is perverse to me (and to them, apparently) that they are now being asked to undermine the very foundations of medical practice, rather than encouraged in every way possible to continue building on them.
OTHER POSTS ON ASSISTED DYING: