Beyond tipping point; a right to die

To many, the matter of assisted suicide is of little significance; but to those whose lives it affects, or those with relational ties to those whom it might be seen as a desirable option, the importance of the issue cannot be downplayed as indicated by over a hundred peers looking to contribute to the discussion. The routine faced by carers daily to help those with terminal illnesses or degenerative diseases is a burden; though in the vast majority of cases it is the patient who is most inclined to end their life. Under tentative circumstances the House of Lords is beginning the process of assessing whether or not legislating for the right to die is wise, and whether or not it is in keeping with British values.

To crystallise the legal position is integral if doctors, patients and families are to have any sureness when end of life decisions are made. Since time immemorial the debate has been present. In the last few decades ghostly apparition after ghostly apparition being wheeled out before braying pundits, to have every aspect of their private lives examined and exhibited with varying levels of sensitivity before keeling over gracelessly, have been a semi-regular sight with last gasp dignifying only arising at the time of their burials. Too often the accompanying debate has lacked the requisite depth and sensibility, so if this round is to be any different the historic insufficiencies of previous bouts must be acknowledged and the core questions not sidelined. 

Those struggling to cope with someone close to them in pain rarely wish to see any acceleration in their demise and tend to best handle their emotional baggage with counselling etc., meaning the question of duress is rarely of relevance. It is a factor that must be discussed though if the eventual process is to be deemed legal, as is the presence of any duress from the medical community. It must be accepted that, while the presence of quality adjusted life years are utilised within the NHS decisions relating to life and death are made with cost in mind, basic palliative care is available regardless. Those campaigners who request to end their lives, being prepared to stand the inevitable press scrutiny, don’t seek pity; just dignity. It is with a strange perversion that those who are fortunate enough to be ably bodied revel in controlling the fate of those who are not. 

The lasting relationships that form between the terminally ill and medical professionals extends far beyond the keeping of files or perhaps the occasional meeting, often amounting to genuine friendships. One of the arguments that looms over the public understanding, regularly undermining the debate, is of the seldom few doctors who take a disturbed pleasure in facilitating death without proper cause. There are only a handful of such a depraved mould and do not warrant denoting here. Where this same practice manifests itself in an acceptable form is what is known as the doctrine of double effect. Here increasing doses of painkillers are gradually administered as pain becomes more and more substantive until they do as much harm as whatever the disease itself is doing, leading to the eventual but comparatively painless death of the patient. This compares favourably to the singular lethal overdoses the so called ‘doctor deaths’ administer. The doctrine of double effect is a grey area in law however it is not judgement calls such as these that should be the focus of the legislation but what in essence amounts to a regulated medical practice whereby death is the desired end.

Those of a religious bent are unsurprisingly divided on the issue. What it is a medical professional is prepared to bear on their conscience does not necessarily have to contradict their religious belief, and in the event of a medical professional of a religious persuasion finding themselves in a scenario where the topic is raised ought not to be under the impression that they have any obligation to commit an act they perceive as killing if it is a self evident breach of the Hippocratic oath as they understand it. Where there is a clear communication though that there is a wish to die from a patient who is sound of mind with a tangible life afflicting condition, that is one of a serious enough impediment to normal functioning that it renders them unable to take their own life, it is something of an intrusion to oppose such a wish; heedless as to which regnant deity’s instructions it is that are supposedly being adhered to.

That the right to die would be depicted as a collapse in morality and a descent into barbarism that could lead to the downfall of civilised society is preposterous. Human rights legislation has developed to such a point that to amend the Article 8 (right to a private and family life) to include a right to a dignified death is in no way beyond the realms of the existing framework. That right wing conservatives don’t want to give way to the Nick Cleggs of the British political system on religious grounds is not illegitimate, however the deeply personal nature of the cases and the unrelenting calls to help from the peers and the commons in a dignified and open fashion should not be dismissed out of hand. 

The debate will be an interesting study of how the older generation perceives questions of morality; and not to debase it; but it will also serve as a gauge of sorts before electoral strategists draw up the direction intended to take the conservatives into the next election. There is a deep, but not necessarily incompatible, divide in intergenerational opinion on issues such as this one. Instead of furthering the division of the varying branches of thought, a broad conservative philosophy that integrates the divergence in opinion ought to be the aim of the right wing legislators partaking in this week’s debate. It does require a readiness to enter into discussion on what is deemed taboo areas; however in a functioning Parliamentary democracy this should not be beyond what is held as being workable.