Assisted dying: The battle for autonomy


Unless you were living as a hermit in a cave somewhere, you will have heard that a momentous Supreme Court ruling finally legalised same-sex marriage across the USA. You may have even used the rainbow filter or quoted the fine words of Justice Kennedy in order to express your joy. Whilst I still harbour serious misgivings about the means employed, it cannot be denied that this represents a welcome step in the social development of this great ally of ours.

Understandably, you may be wondering why I am dragging this up now. I mean, what on earth does any of this have to do with us tea slurping rascals? Indeed, our elected representatives in our Parliament were wise enough to legalise same-sex marriage in 2013; a much better way of going about things to my mind. Well many were understandably shocked because… well it’s the US. And it reminds us that change is possible, and even though something may seem hard today – maybe even impossible – it might just be possible sooner than one might think. I mean, the last anti-sodomy law in the US was struck down in 2003 for goodness sake.

Crucially, I think that freedom and liberty lovers in the UK like myself – those who believe in the individual and in agency – should be inspired and encouraged to push for yet more soundness. Make no mistake, same sex marriage was a victory for us and equally it was a crushing defeat for one of our principal enemies, namely the bigots that have previously been able to foist their beliefs (or naked prejudices), that are often intertwined with faith, on the rest of us for far too long. Unfortunately, these unsavoury people are still around and we need to strike whilst the iron is hot. The potential next steps are myriad, but it is my firm belief that assisted dying should be the next crusade.

As a member of the Conservative Party, you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t agree with everything that J.S Mill said. However, I completely agree that: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.

Ultimately, this is why the state needs to stop interfering with peoples choices about their own death. Quite frankly I could not give a monkeys if detractors think that life is sacred, as far as I am concerned there is nothing more sacred than liberty and autonomy. The only person who is in a position to judge the worth of my life is myself, period. Nobody else. Approximately nobody decides to exist, their parents often decide that they are going to when they fall into an inebriated state after an office party and such, whilst death, like taxes, is inevitable. If we are all going to die then we should all be able to decide when, where and how if we want to. If I am no longer able to do the things that make me happy and if I am of sound mind, I want a doctor to give me the drugs I need and to administer them if I cannot (and they are willing).

Sometimes a family pet gets ill and we accept, with a heavy heart, that we must put it out of its misery, to spare the poor thing anymore suffering. It’s the humane thing to do. Yet, Grandad could well be experiencing an unimaginable amount of pain daily, with absolutely no quality of life nor prospect of recovery, and a very dear wish to die. Apparently, he simply must be kept alive against his will because a band of moralists have decided that life is sacred. Eventually the staff stop feeding him and a doctor decides to ease his agony by increasing his pain relief to a life shortening dose, but they don’t want to talk about that bit. This is patently obscene. A person who has probably paid taxes and worked hard all of their lives, he may well have fought for his country, has their autonomy and dignity cruelly torn away.

Of course, people can always starve themselves to death. In 2009, Debbie Purdy (severely disabled by multiple sclerosis) died in an English hospice. She starved herself to spare her husband from prosecution. What on earth does this say about our society?

I concede that not every opponent to assisting dying is a shrieking prude, although I am pig sick of them as you may have detected. I also concede that they are often well intentioned and that they voice numerous legitimate concerns. But frankly, a great many odious and disastrous things have been motivated by good intentions. I have always found the introduction of the cane toad to Australia to be a humorous illustration of that truth.

We must do everything that we can to ensure that assisted dying is not used as a cheap alternative to palliative care, and it is also vital that we guard against the bands of hawkish relatives that unfortunately blight some families. It is also essential that we ensure that there is adequate mental healthcare for people who consider it, and doctors should brief patients on alternatives such as medication and hospice care. A second doctor should also review each case.

Indeed, there are several safeguards that would need to be in place, but ultimately the principal behind assisted dying – that people should have full bodily autonomy – is bang on.

It is worth pointing out that many countries have had some form of assisted dying for a long time, thus one is able to see whether certain concerns are backed up by evidence. Overwhelmingly they are not. The fear-mongers will tell you that there will be queues outside the clinics. However, in Oregon, where doctors have prescribed life ending drugs since 1997, only 1,327 have received them and only two thirds then took them; four-fifths had terminal cancer. It is also worth highlighting that very few who contact the notorious ‘Dignitas’ clinic go through with it. Sometimes, it is the comfort of knowing they can end their suffering when they choose that helps a person carry on.

Inevitably, the contrarians will continue to conjure images of vulnerable people being preyed upon, but this is a complete misrepresentation of reality and we all know it. This is about empowering people. This is about dying how and when you want. This is about dignity and most importantly it is about autonomy.

Assisted dying is the next step in the social development of this country, let us be the better men and women by fighting to bring it about.