24 July

Whence a Right to Die? Whither may it Lead?

As a right to die becomes the subject of yet another House of Lords debate it may be worth revisiting a matter upon which this blog has commented before here and here. The writer has recently seen a film about Virginia Woolf, and it may be of value to shape the discussion with reference to her reasons for choosing to end her own life.

The existing ban on assisted suicide is one of the safeguards built into the 1961 law decriminalising suicide in England and Wales, a law providing that those who attempt to kill themselves and fail are no longer prosecuted for so doing. Whatever one’s position on the sanctity of life it is not hard to see that criminalising an attempt to end one’s own life carries a risk of increasing mental anguish and a possibility of making the mental condition deteriorate further. At the same time, to stop anyone taking advantage of a suicide or a desire to die, and to prevent encouraging of self-destruction for selfish reasons, a ban on assisting suicide has remained in place.

It is quite possible to understand why someone who finds his or her ‘quality of life’ intolerable through incurable and incapacitating — but not yet life-threatening — illness should wish to die. The existing ban stands in the way of the death such a person might desire. One can even sympathise with the likes of Virginia Woolf or Tony Nicklinson who have experienced severe bi-polar disorder and lock-in syndrome, respectively. But, in fact, neither Woolf nor Nicklinson would have been eligible for assisted suicide under Lord Falconer’s current proposals. Even if she had been unable to end her own life by drowning Woolf would still most likely have been ineligible for assistance in ending her life because her reason for doing so was born of mental illness. Similarly, Nicklinson would not have been eligible since his condition would have required someone to administer a poison to kill him.

These cases point up two flaws in the current proposals. In the Woolf case it would be extremely hard to determine that she be helped to die, even while we might readily accept that her suffering was severe. In the second case, where life though scarred by incurable pain is nonetheless viable, we are quick to recognise a great gulf between deliberate ending of life and simply hastening what nature would achieve in a matter of months.

These are two aspects of the matter wherein we may reliably anticipate a ‘slippery slope’ towards viewing suicide as an acceptable solution for serious suffering. Woolf’s expressed intention in ending her life was to lift the burden of her illness from her husband Leonard. Ironically it was her very wish to die that is widely considered a symptom of the mental illness that would have rendered her ineligible for assisted suicide. If we accept that great suffering should be ended by death on what basis can we exclude the mentally ill from assisted suicide? Yet, if we are to include them among those eligible for assisted suicide, how can we hope to pronounce coherently on a person’s sanity if he or she is wishing for something that would otherwise be wholly irrational? This conundrum remains unresolved in the legislation before the Lords. Likewise, although there is a significant gap between giving someone poison to drink, and injecting it because he or she cannot do it, the present bill certainly takes us much closer to a situation where ‘medicalised killing’ is legal. Even if we were to assume that the present problems with assisted suicide can be acceptably resolved (and the writer cannot conceive this), the difficulties surrounding euthanasia far exceed them both in complexity and in their repercussions for society.

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