Saturday, July 19, 2014

Assisted Dying

I have rarely heard a debate in which both sides put forward so many strong speakers and such compelling arguments as in yesterday's House of Lords debate on assisted dying.

It was quite clear that both sides were motivated by compassion and that both sides were raising very real and genuine concerns.

If the bill does not progress we will continue to have tragic cases of dying people in great pain and discomfort who wish to end their lives and are prevented by the law from doing so.

But if it does, and despite the strong safeguards written into the bill, I do think that the opponents have a very serious point that some vulnerable and sick people may feel pressured into asking for assisted death because they think they are a burden.

This bill was based on a similar law enacted in the US state of Oregon. One of it's opponents pointed out yesterday that in at least one case in that state people who were suffering from painful and terminal cancer found their hellth care provider was not prepared to pay for treatment but was prepared to pay for assisted suicide.

At the moment I am with Lord Mackay, who said that although he was against the bill he supported a second reading so that the many complex issues could be debated in more detail. I think that is an excellent idea - this is a question with no right answer but if more discussion helps us as a country to improve the way we treat the terminally ill that would be a very good thing.


Quentin Langley said...

It is, of course, important to distinguish the quite separate issues of assisted dying and urging or pressing someone to commit suicide. The connection between the two seems tenuous at best.

Urging someone to suicide is already a criminal offence. That this would become commonplace was one of the arguments raised against legalising suicide (which was, in reality, the legalisation of attempted suicide, since successful suicides were never prosecuted). That prediction proved false.

I have yet to see a convincing argument that pressing someone to suicide would become more common or harder to prosecute in the event people are able to seek help in this most personal of acts.

The net effect could be in the other direction. The present law itself presses people towards taking their lives earlier than they otherwise might. People are compelled to act while they still have sufficient physical faculties to complete the action themselves, or else leave their loved ones open to prosecution.

Equally, the present law requires that tiny number who would press this course of action on a vulnerable person to do so while the victim is still able to carry out the act unaided. Such a person cannot wait for the intended victim to decide for his or her self that this is the best course, because by then it may be too late.

In addition to the monstrous cruelty of prolonging suffering, or forcing people who wish to end their lives to do so slowly and painfully - by refusing treatment, for example - the present law may actually exacerbate the very problem it is supposed to overcome.

Chris Whiteside said...

You ar right that we should appreciate that distinction.

However, I don't think anyone is suggesting that it should become legal to try to persuade someone to commit suicide, and the bill currently under consideration certainly does not do that. It permits doctors to help someone in certain very specific situations to commit suicide.

Some of the opponents of the bill put forward arguments - which I must confess I find to be strong ones - that the bill may cause people to end their lives because they feel that they are a burden to others, even though those others might be horrified at the idea that they were putting pressure on their lived ones to end their lives.

Quentin Langley said...

Absolutely, no-one is making that proposal, and that was not my point.

The concern that you raise is valid but, as far as I can see, not relevant.

It is not enough to show that some people may feel such pressure. That's obvious. I am sure it presently happens all the time. For it to be relevant to this debate you would need to show that such pressure is likely to be greater if people are able to seek help with suicide. I see no reason to suppose this and have seen no coherent attempt to argue it.

Quite the reverse, such pressure is deferred if people are no longer forced to act early in the decline of their physical capabilities to avoid implicating their loved ones in criminal prosecution.

Chris Whiteside said...

I should have said, Quentin, that it's good to hear from you again.

I honestly think this is a question with no right answer because as soon as someone raises an argument which shows how going one way is more likely to cause horrible results for some vulnerable human being, as you have done, someone on the other side raises an argument suggesting good reasons that going the other way might cause horrible consequences to other vulnerable human beings.

To assess which policy is going to mean the least horrible consquences for the sick and the dying is extremely difficut but those who have to vote on whether the current bill or any similar measure should become law have to make such a decision as best they can.

Most of the time I aspire to be a legislator, but on this issue I do not envy them.

Quentin Langley said...

Thank you, Chris.

And, of course, I looked up your blog as I assumed you would thoughtful things to say. This was merely the subject I stumbled upon. I would love to hear your views some time on the so-called "sharing economy".

Chris Whiteside said...

Thanks, Quentin. Will bear that in mind.