I’ve had great many emails and postcards over the last few days promoting legislation to make ‘assisted dying’ lawful. This is a matter that has been debated in Parliament several times over the last few years. By ‘assisted dying’ what is really meant is doctor assisted dying. In my estimate Government will be unwilling to invest legislative time in such a measure unless there is an overwhelming consensus within the medical profession in favour of it. Currently that is most certainly not the case. Though, I accept that it is the case amongst the public in general. Opinion polls typically report support for assisted dying as high as 75%. There is nothing new in this, the majorities have always been overwhelming ever since they first started asking the question. A response to an opinion poll however, does not constitute an argument. Equally, when pollsters ask a member of the public their opinion, they do not ask how often, or for how long the subject has occupied the respondent’s mind before reaching the declared opinion.
I have debated the question several times in this column and in Parliament and earlier this year I debated it at the University of Durham. I was up against Baroness Meacher who had sponsored a Private Member’s bill in the Lords. She was assisted by a psychiatrist who was a member of the ‘My Life, My Death’ campaign. The Baroness was determined to focus on the narrow terms of her bill and the safeguards built into it (terminal diagnosis with only six months to live, sound mind consent verified by qualified physicians etc.), but she was thoroughly undermined by her assistant who wasn’t having any of it. As far as he was concerned, this was a service that should be available for anyone who wants it.
One of the most alarming aspects of assisted dying in those jurisdictions that have implemented it, is the way that the scope of the provision has so swiftly expanded from the original restricted circumstances that were originally specified. It does appear to be a very slippery slope indeed. One example will suffice. I was deeply troubled by the report in the Spectator of the recent euthanising of 23-year-old Shanti De Corte in the Netherlands. She was tired of having to take daily anti-depressants to deal with the PTSD she had suffered since when, at the age of sixteen, she was with a school trip caught up in a terrorist bomb that killed and maimed many, though she was not physically injured herself.
In Parliament the debate has always focussed on the dilemma facing people with degenerative conditions and their loved ones. I accept that these are hard cases (though there are many who, with the assistance of palliative care, die peacefully with dignity) but the greater danger in my estimate, is changing the law. My fear is that what would begin as a choice, would by degrees become an expectation. After all, with such reduced quality of life is it fair to go on consuming enormous clinical resources?
“you wouldn’t want to become a burden, would you?”