Lord Falconer’s assisted suicide bill is likely to reach the House of Lords before the summer recess following a highly emotive media campaign. The fictional character of Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street is the latest pin-up for the cause after her final scene featured her committing suicide because she was terminally ill. The Sun even ran the headline: “Let sick Brits die like Hayley.”
In addition to this, comment pieces supporting assisted suicide cite or picture the same hard cases involving people who were not terminally-ill but who wanted to die: Daniel James, Debbie Purdy, Tony Nicklinson. Whatever your opinion, it is impossible not to feel moved by each individual who wants an assisted death or who has chosen one at Dignitas in Switzerland. But on the basis of these examples, commentators then tend to snootily dismiss opponents’ concerns about “slippery slopes” or accuse them of “scaremongering.”
The current law which Lord Falconer proposes is limited to assisted suicide for mentally competent, terminally ill adults, which means that the patient must be able to self-administer the lethal drugs to him or herself and the prognosis must be less than 6 months.
But if supporters also want a Bill appropriate for individuals such as Tony Nicklinson, then it would have to include voluntary euthanasia as well, because ‘locked-in’ patients would not be able to self-administer the lethal dosage. And if campaigners envisage a law to assist people like Daniel James, legislation would also have to permit disabled patients who are not terminally ill to apply for help to end their lives.
So it is perfectly logical to fear future campaigns for wide-reaching euthanasia once the humanitarian case for assisted suicide is enshrined in law.
As hard as these high profile cases are, they illuminate the subjective nature of suffering and the difficulty we will face in policing a new boundary once the law makes allowances for involving ourselves in helping others to their deaths. To dismiss opponents’ concerns is dangerously flippant especially when we consider that the humanitarian argument has enticed Belgium to the point of legalising euthanasia for children. After all, why should sick children in Belgium suffer when adults don’t have to?
Parliamentarians and campaigners who support Lord Falconer’s Bill are entitled to do so but they should do it with their eyes wide open.
It’s easy to take it for granted that we currently have a culture, which strives to support the living and their quality of life no matter how sick or disabled a person might be. This culture is invaluable not only for them but for the people who love and care for them too.
Caring for someone who is sick and disabled is a hard and lonely road at times; the strange stares from passers by or the pitying glance from a fellow parishioner can make one feel isolated in their calling, that’s before we even consider the impact on the ill or disabled person.
But when you do come across a healthcare professional or social worker who seems genuinely delighted by your loved one it is a priceless moment and an affirmation that their life is valuable and the care you pour in to their life has meaning. Once an assisted suicide law is enacted, will carers be encouraged in the same way as before, given that the worth of others in a similar condition to their sister or mother is brutally undermined?
And once an assisted suicide law is passed, will suffering be seen as a weird lifestyle choice to be faced in isolation? Will we still value and support the patient in the next bed who didn’t opt for assisted death, after their neighbour with a similar condition just imbibed a lethal cocktail of drugs, with doctor’s blessing? And will the strain on carers not to betray any sign of stress or fatigue grow heavier, for fear that their loved one will elect assisted death in order to relieve their carer’s suffering rather than their own?
The vote in Parliament will be a free one because supporting this law is seen as a matter for the conscience of each individual. But each individual who votes should not underestimate what is at stake for the rest of us when they walk through the voting lobbies later this year.