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UK Euthanasia Activism is alive and kicking
Owen Nicholas   Mar 9, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Few things strike human beings with such intuitive force as the right to life and the pursuit of well being, principles so pervasive that we take them for granted. However, large numbers of people do not accept that “right to life” is not simply a right to exist, but a right to live with quality and value. Once we accept seeking a pain-free life as justifiable, than so is seeking a pain-free death. If the act of living is protected as a fundamental principle of human autonomy, then so is the right to choose the time, place and circumstances of its ending.

Just as progressive politics in the latter 20th century was partially defined by issues such as the struggle for abortion rights, so progressives in the early 21st century can be defined for their recognition of the right to die in a dignified manner. Few contemporary social issues bring out as much anger, hysteria and mudslinging as the debate over euthanasia. In the UK, where the argument has been fierce and ongoing for a number of years, there are encouraging signs that public pressure for change is beginning to have a noticeable effect on political institutions. 

In February this year the Public Commission on Assisted Dying reported that the current legal status of assisted suicide is ‘inadequate and incoherent’. Furthermore it concluded that:

…..there is a strong case for providing the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill people. Even with skilled end of life care, the Commission finds that a comparatively small number of people who are terminally ill experience a degree of suffering towards the end of their life that they consider can only be relieved either by ending their own life, or by the knowledge that they can end their life at a time of their own choosing.[1]

This reiterates what the majority of the public has believed since the 1980’s with poll after poll consistently showing overwhelming support for the legalization [2] of voluntary euthanasia, a fact which pro-life groups have been unable to counter. Despite this, assisted suicide remains a criminal offense in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Numerous reform campaigns have tried to implement a more humane law. One activist is well-known fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, who says:

“I believe passionately that any individual should have the right to choose, as far as it is possible, the time and the conditions of their death. I think it’s time we learned to be as good at dying as we are at living.”

In 2010 guidelines were introduced which advised against prosecuting those helping loved ones to die. The guidelines ethically divided Passive Euthanasia (those who through inaction allowed someone to die) from Active Euthanasia (those who directly aided it). Unfortunately, this arbitrary distinction ignores the reality that assisting a loved one with an earnest wish for death is a means of ending a life of pain and torment.

A major secular objection to assisted suicide is the possibility of abuse by professionals both within the medical industry and by family members who might pressure individuals into opting for it. However - as the commission recommends - a robust legal framework with strict criteria and strong regulatory standards can provide both safeguards for vulnerable people and protect their civil liberties.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said:

“We are confident that the evidence and safeguards in this report will reassure those with genuine concerns about the impact of an assisted dying law on society, as the report highlights that such a law would better protect both those who do want more choice and control at the end of their lives, and those who may be vulnerable and need to be safeguarded.”

Regulated systems are already in place in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and, indeed, in Oregon, U.S.A. In 1997, when physician assisted suicide was first implemented in the Pacific coastal state there were predictions of grotesque purges of the elderly and infirm, the collapse of palliative care, and of columns of unhappy people making their way to Portland in suicidal pilgrimage. [3] None of this bizarre fantasy has come about.

Secular objections are usually in the technical realm, and can be answered with a range of innovative solutions. Far more difficult to overcome are deeply entrenched religious views that mandate life as “sacred” with no permitted exit via death unless it’s desired by whimsical nature or god. The religious position power over life or death is too great for human beings to wield, and that suffering has some objective value. Without renouncing religion, how do advocates convince people that deeply personal matters should boil down to personal choice?

In this essay I have stuck to voluntary euthanasia of the terminally ill as the most straight-forward of such dilemmas, but, as many are aware, there are grayer areas which require more nuanced analysis. For example, the rights of individuals in a persistent vegetative state, mentally disabled newborns, or the manically depressed. Should people suffering from incurable illnesses which are not terminal be granted the same privilege? Can patients with dementia or similar mental conditions get consent? What are the rights of parents, family members, infants and doctors?

These complex questions may require carefully-tailored answers on a case-by-case basis. What is obvious, however, is that right-to-die issues are best resolved by considering the personal wishes of those directly involved, rather than decrees issued by policy makers and interest groups far removed from the actual reality.

In the 21st century it is time we realised that ownership over our life by implies ownership over our death. 

As actor Sir Patrick Stewart states: “We have no control over how we arrive in the world, but at the end of a life we should have legal control over how we leave it.” 


Notes

[1] Full report can be found HERE

[2] http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/212

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/oct/13/usa-healthandwellbeing?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 

 

References

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/oct/19/daniel-james-paralysed-euthanasia

http://www.dignityindying.org.uk/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/euthanasia/

Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.



COMMENTS

All fine and dandy. Anyone should be allowed to destroy themselves. The real issue is - can a person who cannot speak/write be unplugged?

I mean, am I the only one who sees scourges of relatives going to the legal office of the hospital saying “yes, you see, uncle Rockefeller, said to us all he did not want to be kept alive by a machine… see here, he even wrote on this photocopied note that he wanted doctors to pull the plug in case”. A dying body is an immense economical resource (check the price of human organs). Let us bear this principle in mind. If I can speak for myself and say “yes, kill me, chop me into pieces and sell everything to the public health service” I have no objections, really. But if the dying person cannot speak anymore, we are not assisting him or her to suicide, we are legalizing murder.

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