For those of you paying attention over the last few days there has been something of a philosophical and legal debate going on. This bubbles to the surface every so often but normally it is ignored. This weekend just gone however we have a former Archbishop and a current Archbishop taking different sides and this pushed the debate back into the news.
The debate, the argument and the war or words is over the most recent attempt to change the Law on assisted dying. Lord Falconer has a Bill to legalise assisted dying, this will remove the treat of arrest and imprisonment that hangs over the head of any Medical person or relative who aids someone to end their life.
Yes, it’s not illegal to commit suicide, well not anymore. But it is illegal to help someone else do so.
Let’s start by looking at history:
From the 1200s or so it became a crime under common law to kill yourself, this came from the Catholic Church attitude that a Suicide burned in hell. Someone who was a "Felo de se", a felony to himself, was denied Christian burial and had his or her body dumped in the countryside or buried at a crossroads. Often the crime was considered so significant that the dead persons family were also punished. Christianity in action, god gave you life so it was a sin and a crime to try to end that life.
This attitude reached the point where in Victorian and post Victorian times someone who tried but failed to commit suicide was examined. Those considered to be lacking in strength of character and the mental capacity were sent to an asylum. Those considered to be of sound mind were charged under the law.
As late as 1960 this was still happening. In 1956 for example, 5387 officially recorded cases of failed suicide attempts. 613 or those were prosecuted and 33 went to prison (figures from the Times newspaper). Having reached the point where the pain and suffering of their lives left them with suicide being a viable choice and they get sent to prison.
In 1961 we had The Suicide Act 1961. This law was introduced in July of that year and de-criminalised attempted suicide. So if you tried and failed to kill yourself it was no longer a crime. But as the law changed to allow people to end their own suffering it also defined the crime of helping someone else end a person’s suffering.
In fact under section 2 of the 1951 law it is an offence to assist or encourage in an attempted suicide of another with a maximum of 14 years in prison. Yes I did just say encourage, if someone says they are considering suicide and you agree with them or encourage them in any way even if you do not help you just became a criminal under the law.
Providing the means to commit suicide, or actively helping someone to end their lives is either manslaughter or murder depending on the situation and the attitude of the CPS that morning which is why we hear of family members of people who have been helped to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland facing legal charges.
In 2010 an amendment was added which created a requirement for prosecutors to ‘prove’ that support or encouragement was deliberately for the intent of a suicide attempt. So the family member who drove the spouse to the Dignitas clinic was proved to have been guilty by the fact that they knew what the clinic was and yet helped a suffering spouse or family member go there.
The situation gets even more complicated when you add in the definitions of Euthanasia “the act of deliberately ending a person's life to relieve suffering”.
This breaks down into:
Active Euthanasia. Where someone through deliberate action causes a death
Passive Euthanasia. Where death is caused by withholding action required to sustain life.
Voluntary Euthanasia. Where a person has made the choice to die.
Involuntary Euthanasia. Where a person is killed when they do not wish to die.
Non-voluntary Euthanasia. Where a person cannot give consent at the time but the decision is made by family or friends based on previously expressed intent or by such things as do not resuscitate wills.
So where are we now. The reasons for deciding to end one’s life are many and varied. Pain and suffering, terminal medical condition, despair, the seeming lack of worth in living on, debt and poverty. Fear or anger. The list goes on and on.
Many who reach the point in their lives where death becomes a viable option are able to take the last step themselves, to buy the pills or to walk to that bridge. They are able to take the last step themselves.
Where the law causes problems if for the many people who seek to end their lives but are not able to do so. There have been several high profile people with some form of ‘Locked In’ condition who are unable to end their own lives but face the prospect that loving families who would help them end the suffering would face prison for doing so.
Those who have been in the media facing criminal charges and prosecution for helping a family member fly to Switzerland demonstrate very clearly the situation faced by many who wish to die but who cannot risk their families and so continue to live on in whatever painful and undignified shred of live they still have.
Many on the ‘Anti’ side talk of the risk of state euthanasia, or of increasing the rate of people committing suicide because of less important reasons. We hear of the sanctity of life. We hear that medicine is constantly improving and something terminal today may not be tomorrow. We hear that there is a moral duty to protect and preserve all life. We hear that if it becomes legal then ‘inconvenient’ elderly or disabled people will be talked into suicide to spare the expense of a care home or medical treatment. They talk of the value of life.
But week after week we hear of inconvenient elderly people left to die in hospitals. We hear of people who have terminal conditions denied life saving or life extending medicine on the basis of cost. Is this not Euthanasia?
There are days when someone thinks of ending it all. When they sum up what their lives are and the negatives so outweigh the positives that death becomes an option. Some people stand on a tall bridge or a cliff and look down at that long long drop and decide if they have more reasons to live than they have reasons to end it all. Some stand on the shore and look out onto the endless water and imagine what it will be like to sink into the peaceful depths. Some pick up a bottle of pills and think about how easy it would be to take them all and go to sleep.
Some decide to end it all, many do not and instead turn around and go back to living a life that may get better or worse but is still worth living for a while longer.
Where the arguments come in are those people who cannot climb that cliff or stand at the rail of the bridge, those who cannot buy that bottle of pills for themselves and do not want to risk having a friend or family member doing the shopping if the slightest risk exists that the state could prove that the person doing the shopping knew the pills would be used for a suicide attempt.
Being me I look at this whole situation and see things a little differently.
This is not about compassion or suffering, this is not about the value of a life. While it may retain the trappings of Church control over secular law it is not about that either. This is not about concerns over increased suicide rates as poverty becomes more and more widespread. If the government were concerned about people dying as a result of its policies causing poverty ATOS would have been stopped long ago.
At the heart of this matter is a question
Who owns your life? Who has the right to end that life?
Is it the person or is it the state? Do we have the liberty to decide our own fate or must that be mandated by society and the state. They cannot stop someone killing themselves but they can take control of anyone incapable of doing the same. They can threaten friends or family to prevent people trying to kill themselves. Much as the church mandated the punishment of the family of someone who was "Felo de se", so now does the state punish the family for what is a final act of love. The law makes it plain that your life is ‘owned’ by the state. If you end your own life you are beyond punishment but if you need help, then that fact makes your life the property of the state and destruction of that life becomes a crime.
To be elderly, to be senile, to be disabled, to be in any condition where you cannot maintain yourself, then you are the property of the state. You are no longer in command of your own life and therefore are not allowed to ask for help to end it.
That is the argument that I see and that is why I think this will fail to pass. The state is clawing more and more power over our lives every day, I cannot see them letting us gain some measure of control over how we end our lives.
So who does own your life and who had the right to end it?