Euthanasia has long been one of the only moralistic, indeed one of the only political debates still prominent in British society. Whilst the Americas can and will wax lyrical regarding this subject, abortion, gun control, immigration, tax returns, stolen elections and immigration* to name but a few, in Britain it’s much less commonplace.
Part of this stems from the fact that many of these debates are now null and void over here. Guns are acknowledged almost unilaterally as a problem and something that should be outlawed. The argument regarding a woman’s right to choose is so far in the past that people of my generation are only exposed to it through politics lessons and study of American culture. Immigration is of course regularly in the tabloids but most of that stems not from a fact-driven study of evidence concerning workforces, housing shortages or the economy but rather general racism which will take much longer to die out than anyone really wants to admit.
So why is euthanasia a special case? Well the obvious is there to start with. To talk of this subject is to talk – without confusion or doubt as in abortion – of ending a Human life. We may be perfectly willing to hear on the radio that seven soldiers have been killed in a UH-60 crash in Afghanistan and not bat an eyelid, but the idea of one person deliberately and methodically killing someone is somehow much more intimate and involving for us, regardless of our personal involvement with either party.
For my part, I am and have always been a supporter of what’s erroneously called, ‘the right to die.’ The phrase is misleading largely because no one involved in this discussion actually means that when they say it. We all die; it’s a fact of life and not something we can currently prevent. As a result, when people trot out that snappy tagline what they really mean is, ‘the right to die at a time and place of one’s choosing in a pre-ordained manner,’ but that’s somewhat less quippy. Regardless, my personal view is that though it should be advised against; though it should be carefully monitored; though it should never become more than a last resort; we should all enjoy the right (and I use that term deliberately) to end our lives when we choose. Often this won’t be the case whether it be due to car crash, house fire or the aforementioned blackhawk, but assuming one lives a life without any of these, why can’t we end our lives when we want?
It would be disingenuous to state that opposition to euthanasia is entirely based in religion because as Dominic Lawson points out in The Times today, there are people who are simply opposed to it based on their own individual morals or a study of the evidence presented. There’s no denying however that most opposition in our society stems from religion, which would be fine but for the fact that despite our national, albeit somewhat dated, catchphrase is, ‘God save the Queen,’ Britain for the most part cares as much about religious directives as George Bush did UN resolutions. Whilst in America he may have won votes and arguably his second election based on his religious footing, Tony Blair, an equally devout Catholic, almost had to hide his religion throughout his career as a politician to gain acceptance.
Given that, you have to wonder how widespread opposition to euthanasia is in the UK, a relatively liberal country in Western society, and how much of it does stem from a noisy minority. According to euthanasia.cc, the Roman Catholic Church is the biggest monetory contributor in the fight against assisted suicide investing more money than all the ‘Right to Die’ groups around the world many times over, though the site neglects to provide numbers or stats. With regards to the general populace however, the British Social Attitudes Report of ’96 stated that 82% of those polled were in favour of legalised voluntary euthanasia with the number rising yet higher (86%) in cases where the individual was reliant upon a life support machine and unable to make a decision for themselves, for example due to the effects of a coma. Further to this, euthanasia.cc state that no nationwide poll has ever shown a majority against assisted suicide. A bold claim and one that a cursory google whilst writing this did nothing to dispell. Indeed even allowing for the fact that the Glasgow University study mentioned above is now twelve years old, lifenews.com has a recent and topical article dated yesterday on the subject. Last Wednesday, Sky showed a 90-minute documentary entitled, ‘Right to Die,’ in which 59-year-old motor neurone disease sufferer Craig Ewert was shown travelling to the Zurich-based Dignitas clinic to be euthanised. Amongst other things, the documentary showed Mr Ewett drinking what was referred to as, ‘the recipe’ which killed him a few moments later. A poll conducted for The Times revealed that 61% of the 2000 people surveyed had no opposition to the scene being filmed. The poll also showed that in the recent case of Daniel James who was aided in travelling to a foreign euthanasia clinic by his family, 85% of Britons agreed with the decision not to prosecute those involved despite current law demanding up to a 14-year sentance for aiding a death in that manner and 69% believe the law should be changed to allow for assisted suicide. Those most vocal in speaking out against these cases were mostly church based organisations.
Groups opposed to euthanasia often bring forth the idea that doctors are opposed to it, and I have seen polls to confirm this idea. That being said, a survey quoted in Euthanasia and the Right to Die found that British doctors had killed nearly 3,000 patients in 2004. The two-year old study that Lawson quotes in his article opposing assisted suicide notes that 30% of ‘euthanasia’ cases are described as “alleviation of symptoms with possible life-shortening effect” and another third were decribed to be caused by, “nontreatment decisions.” What this means in layman’s terms is that the patients were either given high doses of painkillers (likely morphine) with the knowledge that the patient would die, or simply the witholding of treatment with the knowledge the patient would die. The practice is commonplace and the wording is just doctors covering themselves either legally or morally.
Large objections to the introduction of legalised euthanasia in Britain are the doors it may open. Will doctors/familes ‘euthanise’ patients because it’s cheaper than keeping them alive? Having the option available, will elder family members feel obliged to end their lives so as not to be a burden on their families? Will angsty teenagers worried about pimples charge to the clinic to commit suicide legally? These are valid points and I won’t attempt to dismiss them with flippance. That being said, I’m forced to think of those with multiple schlerosis, Parkinson’s or other invidious diseases that truly destroy a life. It’s certainly possible to live with them, but would you choose to? I wouldn’t, and I think I deserve to make that choice myself. If you disagree with euthanasia then I respect that, but don’t prolong my life to make yourself feel better.