How did we really get to this stage, where the most hotly contested social and ideological question of our generation ‘is whether it is right to end human life, considered not fit enough’? From the issue of abortion to euthanasia the divide is increasingly becoming distinct and ubiquitous. I always thought that events in history had taught us not to qualify human life in value terms. ‘Every human life is precious’ sounds perfect to me. ‘Oh this life is quite worthless, we could as well put an end to it’, was once considered quite an ominous view to have and indeed express, if not only because of it’s potential of producing unintended consequences down the line. “Every human life is precious, valuable and should be preserved”, was touted to be the underlining principle of what a compassionate and civilized society of the 21st century was built on. Could it be that our psyche has changed?
I am writing this against the backdrop of the documentary by Terry Pratchett on assisted suicide. Let me first state that I did not watch the documentary but even if I had the opportunity to, I wouldn’t have. I have seen similar features; I have heard all the arguments before but something still tells me it is wrong. I have heard enough about the content of the documentary and the ensuing debate following from it, so I think I kind off get what it was about (and besides it would soon be available on You Tube). I am not going to; change my opinion all of a sudden because a man is shown dying on television. We all know that there are people going through unbearable sufferings (we cannot even begin to imagine) for various reasons and in varying degrees in every part of the world. What is actually the policy of showing death on TV? I had always taught it is too morbid and crass to show actual death on telly (even if it is peaceful).
Would the BBC ever allow an abortion procedure to be showed on television? I bet they won’t dare show the outcomes of abortion and let the general public see how cruel it is. May be it was a good thing they showed the documentary to spark a debate on the issue. We hope they can balance it out by showing a similar documentary on how palliative care is administered to terminally ill patient or patient experiencing severe pain keeping in mind that the commission on assisted dying has just finished taking submissions from the public and are now compiling their report.
From a historical point of view, the fears, the concerns and the antecedents of its danger are real and ever present. Before the Nazi’s first introduced the T-4 Euthanasia (good death) program which they claimed was out of compassion and mercy for those considered to be unworthy of life, there had been a growing call for its introduction in the 1920’s by the German Eugenics movement. This movement stepped up their campaign for the introduction of such a program by the early 1930’s. While acknowledging that public opinion would most likely not support it, they embarked on a huge propaganda campaign of documentaries, films and posters using languages such as ‘compassionate’ and ‘mercy’ in order to sway the public mood. Eventually, they were able to get the Nazi government to introduce the law that enabled killing those they considered to be unworthy of a good life, the terminally ill, and the disabled, which later expanded to include race and various other reasons that history has recorded. This latest campaign feels like déjà vu to me.
Now, the arguments in favor of it could, to all intent and purposes, be genuine but the overall unintended consequence and the fear of the of the law evolving to point that there would be no safeguards, makes it a very dangerous route to follow that could ultimately lead to diminished respect for human life.
The one question that keeps coming up is; ‘whose life is it anyway?’ Don’t I have the right to do what I like with it and that includes ending it? Let’s take the case of suicide; the state tries everything it can to persuade any individual threatening to take his/her life for whatever reasons (emotional, psychological and sometimes physical) not to. So for instance, if a man is standing at the edge of the London Bridge with a revolver pointed to his head. You are sure that expert negotiators from the security agencies would try to talk him out of it. We could as well say, ‘it is his life, let him take it if he wants, it’s one less mouth to worry about’. We don’t because our culture to protect and preserve every life despite what they might have done or what they might be going through (The standoff between the police and Raoul Moat is a recent example). Most legal documents expressly classify the right to life as a fundamental right accorded to all manner of persons not the right to die.
If society is to grant the terminally ill their wish for assisted suicide because of their ailment and suffering, under the principle of control and determination over their life, how can the infirm, weak those who are struggling with depression or suffering for other reasons be denied the same opportunity?
It is hard to criticize the relatives of those seeking to die in the case of the terminally ill with unbearable pain and suffering. How can they not oblige the request of their loved ones to release them from their misery? Is that not being compassionate and merciful? If that is true, does that make those who are opposed to euthanasia, uncompassionate and merciless? No it is not. In fact, I believe both side are advocating their positions based on love and respect for their fellow man.
Having this in mind,
I am of the opinion that in certain cases, assisted suicide (active euthanasia) should not be criminalized but it should not be made legal and permitted in any circumstance (I no longer hold that position which I held 3 years ago as without
criminalizing, it will be difficult if not impossible to deter people from carrying out euthanasia).
What is the point? Is that not a paradox? You might be saying. Well maybe it true that my suggestion is a bit absurd but I guess the whole issue has gotten me really confused.
One thing I am sure of though is that I do not believe society as a whole should abandon its responsibility of caring for those in society who are incapacitated for whatever reason.
Irrespective of the prevailing economic situation, the state has a primary duty of care to all its citizens (despite their condition) which includes providing for their welfare, needs and security. This at least forms part of the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy. Most times family members and relatives do face difficult choices and circumstances, that is why placing the burden of guilt and exposing them to difficult moral choices on this issue will seem highly unfair, without the active help of government.
For instance, in France, any attempt to legalize active euthanasia is most likely to fail, just as it did, when it came up for debate in the senate earlier this year, largely because they have a well developed palliative care program. The Prime Minister, François Fillon said during the debate that he didn’t think such a law would fit in with the “basic values of our society” and that to legislate giving the right to end someone’s life was a limit “we should not go beyond”. He said it was also “very dangerous” as it did not allow for any consultation with the family. I absolutely agree with him.
Just as in France, the debate in England and elsewhere needs a senior political figure to take a principled stand based on sound moral judgment and conviction on this issue and not be bullied by those (sometimes a very tiny group with influence) who tend to lobby parliament to pass laws and thereby alter and coerce public opinion in their favor through the courts. The political class should offer and expand the alternative option of caring and not the culture of death.
People often suggest that the opposition to legalizing euthanasia is often reactionary, but these same people fail to acknowledge that such a law can be subject to abuse and could lead to further changes in the law that could pose a potential danger to the weak in our society such as babies, children, people with disabilities and the elderly. In the summer of 1939, Hitler set up a programme headed by two of his close confidant Philipp Bouhler and Karl Brandt aimed at killing children under the age of three considered to have mental and physical disabilities. This was after a decision he made to approve the killing of a severely deformed child on the request of the mother. Parents were soon coerced to commit their ward with similar disabilities to the programme and soon the element of guardian consent, disappeared. By the time the war began, it included children under the age of seventeen. It is estimated that by 1941, over 5000 children had been killed in the programme.
There will be those who will always argue that Nazi Germany was a different scenario. Well, that is the only case we know of, where the policy has actually been tried, developed and evolved.
We see, like in the Netherlands, the introduction of a law; the Groningen protocol, which allows for the killing of children under 16, with only the consent of the parent, Is that not giving parents who consider their children to be a burden a legal way out? Are there not stories of mothers who surreptitiously murder their children for no just cause like in the US where you have cases such as Susan Smith, Andrea Yates and of course the tragic story of Marybeth Tinning? Is it not possible for very manipulative characters to exploit the law to have their children, who they consider to be a burden, killed?
This raises a serious question about those considered unable to grant consent, children, elderly and mentally impaired. Who is going to protect them? Could they be considered to have granted a valid consent or could they be at the mercy of a third party who would pressure, manipulate and even compel them to seek premature death where available. Where does that leave the free will of the individual, his right to determine his destiny and his right to life?
A group in the Netherlands; Out of free will are asking for the law to be change to permit over 70’s who feel tired of life to have the right to seek professional help in ending it and have started collecting signatures. I am sure with caliber of influential members it has, if they try hard enough, they can get parliament to enact such a law. ‘Oh yes, use them and then get rid of them when they are old’. ‘Really! Is that the kind of society we have become’? This is a classic example of how slippery the slope can be.
In concluding, let me clarify the issue of withholding or withdrawing treatment, which often presents medical practitioners and relatives with a serious moral dilemma. It is not morally wrong to withhold or withdraw treatment to someone terminally ill, if that treatment will artificially prolong life without any hope of recovery. Refusing to administer or discontinuing the treatment can be done in good conscience, if the treatment becomes burdensome and prevents the natural process of death
(This does not include refusing to feed a bedridden relative, such that he or she dies of starvation because you would rather want them dead).
This is truly a fine line, but any attempt to legalize active euthanasia would make the line fatally thinner and we would rather not have to deal with the consequences.