Polly Pot does Soylent Green


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.


  1. Ray said,

    August 2, 2009 at 7:31 am

    I don’t know about channeling Marie Stopes – sounds more like you’re channeling Karol Wojtyla.
    ‘Assisted suicide’ is used I think once, and from then on you use the much more inflammatory ‘euthanasia’. (Inflammatory because ‘suicide’ is clearly voluntary but ‘euthanasia’ isn’t) And from there we move to mass-scale abortion, and the jackbooted stormtroopers of the Secular Society kicking down synagogue doors and herding people in at gunpoint because… well, for some nasty reason I’m sure.

  2. red eck said,

    August 2, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Your obvious pro-Christian sympathies aside, this was uncalled for:

    ‘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.’

    That’s the sort of Polly bashing quip I would expect from a Tory.

    It would be interesting to know what you make of Peter Singer.

  3. ejh said,

    August 2, 2009 at 9:22 am

    “Polly Pot” isn’t really that amusing, is it? Unless you’re making a pitch for the Guido Fawkes audience.

    Meanwhile, in textual analysis news: she appears to take….Polly has hinted at in the past…I suspect what she has in mind….she seems convinced….I half expect her to start channelling

    But, at the same time…

    we can psychopathologise anyone

    And what the fuck, please, is this?

    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.

    Don’t you think that perhaps épater le bourgeoisise is for a younger and sillier generation than your own?

  4. ejh said,

    August 2, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Incidentally, there is a good piece to be written about why euthanasia isn’t that simple. This, however, is such a piece’s opposite.

  5. Phil said,

    August 2, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Hmm… What they said. Particularly ejh#3.

    Not to say that the original article is any good. In particular, the swipe at palliative care (which is by definition not aimed at extending life) strikes me as utterly bizarre. It’s only a single datapoint, but the palliative care my mother received after her second stroke was very definitely not aimed at keeping her alive no matter what. The doctor caring for her was utterly straight with us: there was a stage for everything, and she was in the dying stage. After she’d been unconscious for a week (“she’s having a nap at the moment”, a nurse told us one morning) he stopped nutrition and disconnected the monitors; a bit later he disconnected her saline drip as well. When I queried that decision he said that if she hung on over the weekend (it was Friday) he’d restart hydration and nutrition. She didn’t.

    My mother’s case also makes me think that the wedge effect is a genuine worry. Any time before my mother had her first stroke would have been too soon for her to declare herself a candidate for assisted suicide – until six months before she died she was fit and active, physically and mentally. After the stroke was too late – after a couple of months she was walking and talking again, but she didn’t know what day it was. The concern has got to be that people will end up being pressured to sign loosely-worded undertakings about what to do if they “become incapable”; the potential for abuse is obvious.

  6. Madam Miaow said,

    August 2, 2009 at 11:29 am

    This piece expresses my anxieties around euthanasia and assisted suicide as well.

    I think the Soylent Green metaphor is most apt in a world where capitalism is grinding sclerotically into its next phase where we are meat to be cannibalised for the system. Yeah, I know, that’s always been the case, but never for workers in the West so nakedly and widespread. The mask is sliding off the face and we don’t like what we see (shades of Jasmine in Angel, played by Gina Torres).

    Unless I am gunned down by a jealous lover or run over by a bus, I will choose when I go and do it myself. The idea of being incapable and dependent on those around me who, by that stage might not be Loved Ones, scares me silly.

  7. Wednesday said,

    August 2, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Hmm. I have to say, Splinty, I think you’ve made the wrong call on this one (the substantive topic I mean, not Polly Toynbee). The fundamental issue is the need for clarity in the laws. It’s just not good enough to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the DPP will exercise compassionate discretion and quietly ignore those cases that meet a certain undefined threshold. That’s the same argument that the puritans are using here in the 26 to argue for retaining strict liability in relation to consensual sexual activity involving under-18s, and it’s equally as flawed. People need to be given the ability to reasonably predict whether they might be subject to prosecution for an act before they commit it, that’s a fundamental principle of due course of law. It’s all the more important where the penalties might be severe as in homicide cases.

    I don’t think your abortion analogy works. The reason the 1967 Act is so broadly interpreted is because Britain has made a policy decision to broadly interpret it. There is no reason, legally, why they had to do that – Poland, for example, with comparable legislation certainly hasn’t – and it certainly doesn’t follow that the same would be the case for euthanasia legislation.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 2, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    But I think Phil is basically correct about the wedge effect. I’ve had enough experience watching elderly relatives waste away with Alzheimer’s and other degenerative conditions – by the time they get really bad, it’s impossible for them to make a decision, and I certainly wouldn’t be willing to go beyond DNR.

    It’s an issue that I have very serious problems with, and I’m curious as to how legalisation has become almost a common-sense position. I don’t blame the advocates of legalisation for highlighting the hard cases where you can’t help feeling for the people, while ignoring the uncomfortable implications – that’s what advocates do. What concerns me more is having a half-baked legalisation based on emotional appeals to do the right thing by some desperate people.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 2, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    See also Dominic Lawson, who is rather good on this.

  10. ejh said,

    August 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    One of the characteristics of those most determined on assisted suicides is that they are powerful personalities used to exercising total control

    Certain amount of projection from Dominic Lawson there.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 2, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Perhaps. But he touches on a real point, which is whether the law is framed to facilitate the assertive or to protect the vulnerable. This is one of those areas where it’s very difficult to do both.

  12. ejh said,

    August 2, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Well he may touch on a real point, but in a fairly loathsome way:

    One of the characteristics of those most determined on assisted suicides is that they are powerful personalities used to exercising total control — the polar opposite of those who would be the most likely victims of their campaign, were it to succeed. Purdy is quite typical, described in The Guardian as “a self-confessed adrenaline junkie who had revelled in travelling the world diving from planes, conquering mountains, trekking through jungles and exploring the depths of the oceans”.

    You can see why such a personality cannot bear to contemplate the complete loss of control that her condition might impose.

    Jesus Christ.

  13. Chris Baldwin said,

    August 2, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I stopped reading at “PC brigade”. Jesus Christ.

  14. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 2, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Not an ideal label I’ll grant you, but when it comes to Polly it’s difficult to think of one that fits better.

  15. Harrods is Burning said,

    August 2, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    For what it’s worth the current DPP – in the days when he was Red Keir – used to do a good job of singlehandedly keeping the coffers of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers full. Unlike the various Labour ministers he has not been moving to the right (except for the wretched policy of appointing permanent in-house CPS prosecutors). And you’ll see who was representing the CPS in the Lords – Dinah Rose – a much better lefty than Pannick who was against her. While Starmer’s in office, I’ll bet that there will be zero prosecutions.

  16. Cian O'Connor said,

    August 3, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Maybe, on the principle of literary critic Lisa Jardine being made head of the Embryology

    Lisa Jardine is a HISTORIAN who has written fairly extensively on the HISTORY OF SCIENCE. I’ve already corrected this once.

    And what is wrong with Lisa Jardine anyway? Would you prefer the Sense about Science mob making decisions on embryology?

  17. Cian O'Connor said,

    August 3, 2009 at 10:31 am

    And incidentally, the decisions made by the embrylogy authority are moral and social ones, not scientific ones.

  18. Phil said,

    August 3, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Lisa Jardine is a HISTORIAN

    I wouldn’t go that far – she’s certainly an expert on the early modern period, but her background is in English rather than History.

    She’s not a bad choice in this context, but there’s no obvious reason to believe she’s a particularly good choice either. What it reminds me of is something I was told by a Polish guy who I met at the END conference in Coventry in 1986. When you look at the role of intellectuals East and West, he said, you’ve got to consider that there are two types of society: state-bound and community-bound. As an intellectual gains in prestige in a state-bound society, they approach closer and closer to state power, to the point of ultimately being nominated to join the state or one of its organs. In a community-bound society, the influence of an intellectual is limited to his or her immediate circle – among friends, in the local community, within a university. You in the West, of course, live in a state-bound society.

  19. ejh said,

    August 3, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Did we say “ka-boom-tish” back then?

  20. Cian O'Connor said,

    August 3, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Well yes, there’s a lot of truth to that. On the other hand, better intellectuals, than journalists, civil servants (UK Mandarins, at least), fucking celebrities, business men, or politicians (who are the other groups that seem to be tapped). I’m too close to the academy to have many illusions about it, but it seems like the lesser evil here.

    I’m not sure anyone’s a particularly good choice for such a role based upon credentialism. What you need is somebody who can assess evidence, knows their own personal limitations, has decent political instincts and knows how to ask the right questions of experts. On top of that they need a good moral compass. A good generalist in other words. A scientist, ignoring obvious exceptions such as Richard Feynman, would be exactly the wrong person for such a role.

    Keyne’s background was in maths, I work with people who have published exclusively in computer science journals but whose PhDs are in psychology, maths, engineering and sociology. There are a number of people who work in sociology and anthropology who don’t have PhDs in that area. A friend’s dad is head of a prestigious department without even having completed a PhD. Plenty of people get a PhD in one area and move into another. It depends upon how closely you want to police the boundaries I guess, but she’s certainly never been a literary critic and she’s practiced as a historian for most of her career. As head of the human fertilisation committee she seems to have done a pretty good job. That may be luck, she may have been picked for the wrong reasons, but still. Not an obvious person for Splinty to attack.

  21. Phil said,

    August 3, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    ejh – the interesting thing was that it was said without any sense of irony. That was just how the world looked if you were a dissident-ish intellectual in Poland back then.

    she’s certainly never been a literary critic

    She’s done quite a lot of teaching English literature, though.

    A friend’s dad is head of a prestigious department without even having completed a PhD.

    I’m with the general point, but this example doesn’t impress me greatly. (Sore point. Got PhD. Got sole-authored book. Not got salaried post, let alone senior ditto.)

  22. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 3, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    It’s not that she’s been bad in the job, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone from Sense About Science anywhere near an ethical decision. It’s just that, well, I have this vague feeling that, when there’s a job going that has some ethical dimension, there’s a tendency to reach for Start the Week panellists. Over here we have an equivalent where any high-powered panel seems to need either Archbishop Eames or Sir Ken Bloomfield to be involved at some level. That’s why I was only half joking about Polly being made chief executive of the Euthanasia Authority – it’s all too easy to imagine her getting the job.

  23. neprimerimye said,

    August 3, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Bit perturbed about the curious support expressed here for the statist views of Toynbee. Compared to her Phyllis Bowman is a damn good socialist, or rather was once upon a time, and the fact that her ethical positions are rooted in Christianity is besides the point. Comrades ought to remember that the majority of people in this society still base their morals and ethics within a broadly Christian worldview whether or not they are aware of tht fact. It ill favours comrades should they adopt a knee jerk opposition to an idea or political standpoint simply because it stems from a Christian viewpoint. In a word it is sectarian.

  24. Cian said,

    August 3, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    well at least they don’t use the Moral maze, though the Tories probably will.

    Wasn’t supposed to impress you, as I don’t know anything about him except the one piece of his I read didn’t impress me very much.

  25. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 3, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Holy fuck, now I’ve got nightmare visions of Claire Fox, David Starkey and Mad Mel heading statutory agencies. Actually, if there’s one useful measure New Labour could take, it would be to nationalise Melvyn Bragg and put him to work as permanent head of the Arts Council.

  26. Gaina said,

    August 10, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    OK, bottom line. If a person decides they don’t want to live any more – that their disability or illness has reduced their quality of life *by their standards* – then that’s nobody’s else’s business and they should be allowed to end their life with dignity. Of course I would always advocate that proper counselling takes place before the ultimate decision is made (but as I will show you in a moment, that already takes place within our current healthcare system).

    ‘Quality of Life’ is so subjective that it can only be measured by the individual and their threshold must be respected. Personally I love my life, but it would be arrogant and selfish of me to deny someone else with exactly the same disability their release from what THEY see as unbearable suffering just because I feel differently about my own circumstances.

    My grandfather suffered from emphysema for many years and in October 2007 he suffered a collapsed lung as a complication of the disease. He was an otherwise extremely fit man and didn’t even shrink as some people do with age – he was 6’6″ until they day he died.

    The hospital who treated him were fantastic, but there came a point when the last operation to repair the damaged lung failed and whilst he was assured that he could be made extremely comfortable indefinitely, he made a calm and rational choice to end his life (he was thoroughly assessed to satisfy his healthcare team that this was exactly what he wanted) . Because of our (IMHO insane) laws on assisted dying, rather than being allowed to actively end his own life, he was ‘wound down’ by the gradual withdrawal of life support in tandem with an increase in pain killers.

    My Uncle came over from Australia and he spent it has to be said a happy month with most of his family around him. My Dad was with him when he died, and says it was very peaceful.

    My grandfather was a very dignified man and I don’t think he should have had to suffer the indignity of being ‘reduced’ in that way when in another country he could have had controlled his passing in a more pro-active way .

    It doesn’t matter how much palliative care you put in place, the fact of the disability or illness and it’s affects on the body AND mind of the person living with it will still be there and they should be the ones to decide when enough is enough. The only real answer to this is for people to write ‘Living Wills’ which can be updated as circumstances change (because many people think they wouldn’t want to live with a disability, but when it happens to them they may feel differently, I’ve seen it for myself).

    Religiously motivated sticky-beaks need to keep well out of it too.

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