Choosing to Die

It is possible, as a reader of this article, that you have seen Terry Pratchett’s documentary Choosing to Die. If not, then I urge you to do so whenever it’s next broadcasted or distributed. It mainly featured Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old with motor neurone disease whose self-inflicted death at the infamous Swiss clinic Dignitas was shown in full towards the end of the program. It’s a distressing watch, but hopefully if you think like me on this subject, any such emotion will be dwarfed by the importance of Peter’s choice. Unfortunately, and most distressingly of all, it was Swiss law, not British, which gave Peter that choice. He was still required to travel far out from not only his home, but from his country. It was British law that prohibited Peter from the full potential of ‘dignity in dying’.

Absolute arguments against assisted suicide tend to come from those of a divine persuasion and revolve around the central tenet of ‘sanctity of life’. According to such a doctrine, we have no right to tamper with life in this way. Though strangely, any attempt at artificial preservation of life is seemingly okay. Already we have the illogicality of a double standard here; but if you let me, I can do better. A person’s right to life – as so often also preached by the religious – must entail a right to end that life. And just because someone else believes that my life is sacred does not mean I must follow suit. Indeed, in the case of the terminally ill, there must be a deep horror in being told that the severely compromised life you have been ‘given’ is so sacred that you must preserve it. Of course if you are the afflicted person in question and you do believe in sacred life then I leave you to make your choice. Do take note that it is this side of the debate that permits others to do as they will, but the opposition that would want their moral convictions to apply to us all.

If we agree that assisted suicide is not, in absolute terms, wrong then is everyone entitled to such a right? Well, in principle, a ‘right to die’ should apply equally to everyone, not just the terminally ill. I am aware that such an assertion may be opposed by some readers, therefore I hope the following goes some way to persuading them otherwise. A will to die is a will to die, irrespective of its causes. I fail to see the logic behind permitting only a select few a right to a dignified death. Suffering is subjective, it is not our right to deem only terminal illness as worthy of a dignified exit. One might refute that a will to die has the potential to be succeeded in the future by a relief of not having ‘followed it through’, so to speak. Yet if we are to take this reasoning to its natural conclusion we could not permit anyone to make any personal decision at all ‘because they may regret it.’ This is impractical to say the least. What matters is a person’s choice to die in the present. Some would advocate a waiting period between the initial declaration of a will to die and the ability to fulfil that will in dignity. But, I ask, how long would this waiting period be: a week, a month, a year? Fully eradicating a risk of ‘a possible a change of heart’ would require an indefinite waiting period.

The idea of an otherwise healthy loved one taking their life will seem horrifying to any fellow human, but consider the words of the mother of Chris (also featured in Pratchett’s documentary) on the eve of his assisted suicide. “As a mother I think to myself, should I have torn up the passport? …Anything out of desperation to keep him. But it’s selfish. It’s a selfish and non-loving thing to do. It’s not about what anyone else thinks. It’s their decision, and it is their right.” Though Chris was terminally ill, it seems obvious to me that his mother’s sentiments apply equally well to all cases of death wish.

Protection of the mentally-ill is often cited as a precaution that must be taken if assisted suicide were to be legalised, but we must make it clear who we refer to under this title. The phrase ‘mentally-ill’ is often used as a collective for all those in society who are not ‘of the norm’, yet a person with a named mental disease with a will to die has no less of a right to fulfil that wish than a person without that disease. It is the will that counts. A more coherent argument would advocate protection of those who lack a full understanding of choosing to die. But this breaks down too. Being the atheist that I am, am I to consider a man of faith in the afterlife who wishes to commit suicide as ‘not understanding of choosing to die’? An expectation of the experience of death is open to a wide range of beliefs. It is simply impossible to decide on the parameters by which we might accept or reject applications for a dignified suicide.

As for euthanasia (where the subject would be unable to self-inflict death), it follows from my above arguments that a doctor should be able to administer a lethal injection to patients who satisfyingly communicate a will to die. Cases where communication with the subject is unsatisfactory are the only grey area to my mind, though some use of a written will or familial consent could be considered. In cases where communication with the patient is satisfactory, I would strongly oppose any use of familial consent. Chris’ mother’s statement shows her courage and selflessness but, if given the option, others may more selfishly put their own convictions at higher importance, refuse to give consent, and thus overrule the patient’s decision. This, in effect, is the barbaric nature of current UK law on the subject. Other people’s decisions are overruling those of the people they concern. Democracy will always allow the selfish to have their say, so if this article could do any good at all, it would be to convince them otherwise and to wake up the fence-sitters.