Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, 49BC
Moves towards legalising assisted dying (AD) screeched to a halt yesterday with an overwhelming majority voting against its progress in the Commons. Despite several attempts to change the law over the last two decades our democracy appears set in its opinion that things should stay as they are. For those who support AD this is a disappointment, but it is also an occasion that prompts us (me, anyway) to reflect on why we hold views that differ so significantly from the democratically expressed the opinion of the country as a whole. Holding a minority view becomes uncomfortable after a while. It makes you worry that there is something you’re not seeing in the issue.
Of course many would contend that Parliament does not represent the majority of opinion; numerous polls have shown that over 70 or 80% of the general population support a change in the law. However, as someone living in a democratic nation, one has to respect and of course abide by a decision made in Parliament. At some point, surely, it is time to shut up and go with the flow. Yet the question remains – why do they keep throwing it out?
Listening to or reading the arguments voiced in parliament provides lots of answers, but when logic dictates that the law must be changed because the law as it stands does not work, we must seek to understand what appear to be the ‘illogical’ reasons. Illogical sounds pejorative – perhaps I mean speculative, emotional or even spiritual.
The dominant reason appears to be fear for the vulnerable; concern that some who are approaching the end of life will develop the sense of being a burden to their loved ones, or, more malignantly, that those around them will exert subtle pressure to ‘get on and die’. This is pure supposition, and I am not aware of any evidence that vulnerable people have been forced into premature death elsewhere.
There may be religious objections, but they do not appear to ride high in the debate. Perhaps those with strong religious convictions are wary about displaying them, but produce arguments of equal power to achieve the same aim, that of blocking progress. This may be the ethereal, subtle concern that life will somehow become less valuable if we allow the state to get involved in its termination before nature’s own, often cruel, design. This is the ‘Rubicon’ that is spoken of – the river crossed by Caesar on his way to Rome, making war with Pompey inevitable.
The moral axiom that one human should do nothing to hasten the death of another is indeed powerful, but in my mind does not stand up to scrutiny when people such as Tony Nicklinson are forced to starve themselves in order to achieve their goal. The objection is powerful because it raises the spectre that we will slide into some sort of Boschian hell where life is cheapened. The unknown is frightening. However, looking at societies in which well regulated AD law has been developed (Oregon, for example) should serve to reassure us.
Civilised society is based, among other precepts, on respect for life and the absolute taboo against ending it (excepting, of course, war, the threat of terrorism and until fifty years ago, capital crime). Yet those people who desire assistance in dying (a prescription and nothing more, as stipulated in the Marris Bill) are very confident that this generalised respect is misapplied in their own individual cases. They have decided that their lives are no longer endurable and it is actually disrespectful of life to deny them the option of AD. They would never say that their lives have diminished in ‘value’, for all that they have done previously – friendships, relationships, actions, achievements, dreams and thoughts still stand – but if they feel that that life is no longer endurable why should respect for the value of human life in general stay the hand of a person who is actually experiencing the final weeks or months of a single life?
Are proponents of AD somehow different? Are we missing a cerebral circuit? Have we developed a hardening of the sensorium, such that we no longer value life? Are we too pragmatic? Are we lacking spiritual depth? Are we blithely presumptuous about the protections given to the vulnerable? I suspect none of these things apply, yet our views are still outside the will of society (as expressed in Parliament).
We are unlikely to change our minds. And next month or next year someone will help their loved one die. If they acted unselfishly and are seen to tick the exemption criteria set out by a previous Director of Public Prosecutions, they will not be prosecuted; the unsatisfactory law that we have been left with will turn its face. Others, with resources, will go to Switzerland, bypassing our laws altogether. One or two will mount new legal challenges, and they or their relatives will articulate familiar arguments in newspapers or bulletins. But it would seem that for now that the momentum has been lost, and all that we can do is examine our convictions and ponder this gap between the ‘common’ will (as reflected in polls) and the decisions made by our representative in the commons.