As a general rule, Phyllis Bowman is not one of my favourite people. But I think she had a good point in respect of the House of Lords’ ruling on the Debbie Purdy case, in that the Law Lords have driven a coach and horses through primary legislation by requiring the DPP to specify under what circumstances one could breach the Suicide Act while avoiding prosecution. Had this been on another issue, the press would have been going apeshit.
It’s a genuinely difficult issue, and one that doesn’t really lend itself to simplistic solutions. I was taken with this CiF piece by Rabbi Jonathan Romain – it’s not as good as Jonathan is capable of, and does seem to be advocating a muddle in place of clarification, but I’m not unsympathetic to where Jonathan is coming from. You really can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. On the one hand, one feels for those with chronic illnesses who are in a desperate situation and want to exercise some control over the end of their lives. Ms Purdy’s courage is remarkable, whatever one thinks of the issue. And yet, this upsurge in the pro-euthanasia movement leaves me feeling a little, well, worried.
Actually, I’m not sure where this pressure for legalising assisted suicide is coming from. It used to be that dear old Ludovic Kennedy would go on the telly once a year or so to make his pitch for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and it was understood that this was the hobbyhorse of Ludo and a smallish number of his co-thinkers. But nowadays there’s a very widespread advocacy of euthanasia, to the point where it’s almost common sense amongst the bien pensants. Legalisation in Switzerland has spurred things on, of course, and there’s the human interest aspect, often sentimental and sometimes mawkish, even if one does feel sympathy for the individuals, that explains why the media coverage takes the form it does. But there’s also the taking up of euthanasia as an issue by what we might loosely call the PC brigade, who may be looking around for something to occupy their time since New Labour has already enacted so much of their agenda. I’ll come to that in a moment.
To be honest, I think a lot of the problems around people with terminal illnesses are problems of the Health Service, and specifically of the lack of proper resources for palliative care. But campaigning for better palliative care doesn’t really promise an easy solution, so it isn’t attractive for those who want one. The thing is, as I say, I don’t think an easy solution exists.
Generally speaking, while the Suicide Act 1961 doesn’t succeed in the impossible task of pleasing everyone, it’s not so obviously broke that it needs fixing. What needs to be done is to square off the needs of the desperate on the one hand, with the assertion that society values human life on the other. A case-by-case approach is probably still the best option. Compassion demands that prosecutions for assisted suicide be rare – I don’t believe that the current DPP has recommended any – but the continuing illegality of assisted suicide, and the requirement for an investigation, are not something I have a problem with. In fact, it’s probably for the best, given the possibilities of abuse.
Euthanasia advocates in our commentariat laugh off those possibilities, but we know how this works. We might recall that when the Abortion Act was brought in in 1967 – and I write this as someone who supports legal abortion – it was argued that this was a necessary act to help desperate women in extreme cases, and there was no way that we would have on-demand abortion being used as an alternative means of contraception. Well, that didn’t work out the way we were told. The thin end of the wedge is a reality, and helps to explain why doctors are much more cautious than the general public. It’s a fair bet that doctors do quietly help the terminally ill end their lives – the same as the way doctors quietly carried out abortions pre-1967, and a few still do in the north of Ireland – and Do Not Resuscitate is common enough, but the legal establishment of the “right to die” changes the playing field, and puts the entire medical profession in a much more awkward position.
None of this, of course, matters much to Polly Pot. If you’re a Guardian reader, you will have come across some pretty bad Toynbee columns down the years, but her latest is a real stinker. You know how I was talking about degenerate utilitarianism? This is a good example. The main theme, of course, is Polly’s relentless anti-life zealotry – she appears to take Brave New World and Soylent Green as manifestos – but she manages to get plenty of her other tropes in there too.
We begin with the headline:
The 1961 Suicide Act is an instrument of state torture
which is bad enough on its own. Polly hasn’t exactly busted a gut about extraordinary rendition or New Labour’s implication in actual state torture. But, as per our great liberal thinker, by not euthanising ill people we are, er, torturing them. This is obviously an ethical point too subtle for me to grasp.
One might hope that Polly would go off on a tangent about the need to put New Labour out of its misery, but sadly not. Instead, she bangs on about the pain associated with terminal illness and how death is a rather more effective means of pain relief than morphine. Indeed, she hypes it up into a scenario of doctors deliberately deciding to inflict unbearable pain on the chronically ill. Then, for reasons best known to herself, she decides to take a swipe at palliative care:
Palliative-care doctors and nurses can be wonderful: I have seen them at their best, caring for my mother and for others close to death. But collectively they strongly oppose giving their patients the right to die – and their voice carries extra weight inside and outside the medical profession because they are the experts in death. They tend to claim that with the best care, anyone can live out their last days with enough comfort and dignity not to want a mercy killing.
And what’s wrong with that, Polly? As a great believer in technocratic solutions, why should we not pay attention to the experts?
But following in the footsteps of Mother Theresa and Dame Cicely Saunders, this is a branch of medicine exceptionally heavily dominated by the deeply religious who believe only God disposes. Either they deceive themselves or else they deny the evidence of their own eyes and ears about many patients’ experience. Their influence in this debate has been immense – and baleful.
You see? They aren’t just torturers, some of them are religious! Some are even inspired by their faith to try and care for the sick! This is anathema to Polly, who surely demonstrates that there is a fine line between being a militant secularist and just being an atheist bigot. And, having written off the palliative care sector as infested with ignorant sky-pilots, this enables Polly to simply disregard anything they might say on the matter.
It was a cabal of bishops, rabbis and assorted religious enthusiasts who wrecked the Joffe bill in the Lords through a devious putsch that broke Lords’ procedural practice, denying the bill a Commons debate.
Rabbis plural? I’m not even sure there was a rabbi singular in the Lords when the Joffe bill was being debated – Lord Jakobovits was dead by then and Lord Sacks has only just now been ennobled. Besides, even subtracting the opposition of the Lords Spiritual, the bill would still not have had a majority. Unless you’re willing to go down a path Polly has hinted at in the past, that people who hold a religious faith should be disqualified from having an opinion on moral issues. Maybe those who fail to meet her standard of secularism should only have what in the communist movement we used to term a “consultative vote” – that is, a vote that doesn’t count. It’s also the case that many disability advocates are strongly anti-euthanasia, but Polly sensibly doesn’t mention that.
Safeguards are not hard to devise: someone in sound enough mind to write their will can be judged fit enough to choose when it’s time to die, without undue duress from greedy relatives. Besides, the loss of independence and becoming a burden to others may be a valid part of the reason why someone feels life has become undignified and past bearing.
Polly gives with one hand and takes back with the other. Of course older people with chronic illnesses often feel guilty about being a burden on others. The danger is that the “right to die” doesn’t become an expectation to die.
In any case, while I’m not convinced by Polly’s bland assurances about safeguards, her idea that the state can make things better pretty easily is par for the course from the Guardian‘s most convinced statist (and that’s really saying something). There are few things Polly likes better than big government, and I suspect what she has in mind is a Euthanasia Agency stuffed full of form-filling jobsworths. Maybe, on the principle of literary critic Lisa Jardine being made head of the Embryology Authority, a certain Guardian columnist could be drafted in as its chief executive.
And so it goes on. Polly worries that, with the effective legalisation of suicide tourism, only the rich will be able to make it to Switzerland (around £100 Heathrow to Zurich if you shop around for flights), so we must have euthanasia clinics in Britain, just so the poor don’t miss out. What’s more, she worries that the next parliament will be full of social conservatives who may not buy the entire humanist bill of goods. (For some reason, possibly to do with the Tories’ marriage of convenience with some boisterous Polish Catholics in the European Parliament, she seems convinced that Cameron’s Tories are just gagging to ban abortion and reinstate Section 28. I think not.) Therefore, New Labour must rush through a bill to legalise euthanasia before the election, while we still have a chance. Because rushed legislation in response to media campaigns has a great history, doesn’t it? Do I hear Dangerous Dogs Act, anyone? What about the handgun ban?
Welcome to Polly’s utilitarian dystopia, where her entire agenda has been accepted by the political class and Dr Death Evan Harris is the model political leader. Has mass-scale abortion helped to give us an ageing population, with not enough taxpaying workers to keep health services running? Then we’ll just euthanise the old, the halt and the lame. And we can psychopathologise anyone who objects as a religious obscurantist. It’s a pity the Nazis so thoroughly discredited eugenics, because whenever Polly goes off on one of these topics I half expect her to start channelling the late Marie Stopes’ call for compulsory sterilisation of the underclass, something Polly’s Fabian predecessors found a rather fascinating idea.
I also see that Polly’s mate Titus Oates is hailing the Lords’ judgement in the Purdy case, which is a pretty good indication that it’s a bad thing. In other secularism news, one of Titus’ satraps is questioning the right of Jews to decide who is Jewish in accordance with Jewish custom. So much for tolerance of minorities, then.