Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Misanthropy of Assisted Suicide

Brendan O'Neill is a libertarian and an atheist with very strong views on both counts. I expect, with a name like his, that he is also a self-defining ex-Catholic. He writes:

It says a lot about the opinion-forming classes that pretty much the only right they get excited about these days is the "right to die". They treat the right to free speech as a negotiable commodity which may be snatched away from un-PC people. They have given the nod to the watering down of other essential rights, such as the right to trial by jury and the right to silence. But the "right to die"? They cleave to that like crazy. It is the one right which, if you will forgive the pun, they would die for.

Today, MPs are debating new guidelines proposed by the Director of Public Prosecutions on who should and should not be prosecuted for assisting a suicide. There is a palpable desire in influential circles for assisted suicide to become a legally recognised, legitimate thing, in order to move on from the current situation where desperately ill people must travel to Switzerland in order to receive a fatal injection. Commentators argue that a humane society should never force a very sick or disabled person who wants out to carry on living.

There is an element of truth in this. But there is a big problem with elevating what is in fact an age-old practice – helping extremely sick people to end their lives – into a "right" which we should all enjoy. Which is that it would treat individual and tragic acts of death-assistance as some sort of social good; it would turn the discreet and humane "final push", which has been taking place in hospitals and homes for centuries, into a socially decreed, positive act. It would, in effect, give a green light to defeatism, to suicidal thoughts, and that is not something society should ever do.

It is one thing for families and their doctors discreetly to assist a loved one who is on death's door. We all know that such things occur. And by and large, society turns a blind eye to such acts of kindness. But it is another thing entirely to elevate such acts into a right – the "right to die" – which society should actively sanction. That would put pessimism on a pedestal, turning the torturous final decisions that some unfortunate people make into a kind of "liberty" which we should all have the right to avail ourselves of.

The rebranding of voluntary euthanasia as the "right to die" speaks to today's profoundly misanthropic outlook. What is really happening here is that influential commentators and campaigners are dolling up their own, highly individuated fears for the future as a libertarian issue, turning their hypochondriacal panic about ending up as helpless into a liberal cause, as if fighting for the "right to die" were on a par with earlier generations' struggle for the right to free speech or protest. They plunder the libertarian language of the past in an attempt to prettify an agenda which is fact depressing and miserable, all about the end of autonomy rather than the meaningful exercise of it.

And the campaign for the "right to die" also seems to be implicitly bound up with today's broader inability to value and celebrate human life. Ours is an era in which newborn babies are referred to as "carbon footprints" and elderly people are looked upon as "bed blockers". We now tend to view human beings as a burden, whether of the environmental or economic variety. It is surely no coincidence that the "right to die" should have become such a celebrated cause at precisely a time when human life came to viewed as a bit of a curse, certainly not an unalloyed good. Indeed, it is striking that some commentators couch their support for the "right to die" in economic terms, reminding us, for example, that each patient with dementia costs the economy "eight times as much as someone with heart disease". In a heartfelt column in today's Times, Melanie Reid, the columnist who was paralysed in an accident, says it is "ridiculous that an educated society, facing an unaffordable explosion in dementia and age-related illness, is prevaricating over [assisted suicide]".

So assisted suicide is about resolving problems such as dementia and old age, is it? It is about cutting costs, because having lots of confused elderly people is simply "unaffordable"? Here, we can see a very clear link between the old, discredited campaigns for euthanasia and the new, seemingly PC push for the "right to die" – in both cases, it is human life itself which is being devalued, as society is urged to "do something" about sick and disabled people whom we can apparently no longer afford to care for.

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