You may have heard of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Paris-based editor, who suffered a stroke aged only 42. Left paralyzed, speechless and only able to move his left eyelid, he nevertheless used this rudimentary movement to dictate an entire book. Here he describes a moving occasion where he was taken out in his wheelchair with his two children…
“……. While I have become something of a zombie father, Theophile and Celeste are very much flesh and blood, energetic and noisy. I will never tire of seeing them. ….As we walk Theophile dabs with a Kleenex at the thread of saliva escaping my closed lips. His movements are tentative, at once tender and fearful as if he were dealing with an unpredictable animal. As soon as we slow down Celeste cradles my head in her bare arms, covers my forehead with noisy kisses and says over and over “you’re my dad, you’re my dad” as if in an incantation. Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But this time we spend the whole of this symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad, is still a dad”.
It is heart-rending and it made me realise that sometimes the value of our human life may only be fully recognised by those around us — a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.
The UK bill on Assisted Dying was debated in Parliament on September 11 2015. It sought to provide assisted suicide for people of sound mind with less than 6 months to live. (See Featured Comment below)
What’s Wrong With That?
In certain cases, there may be nothing wrong with passing a law such as this:
Bob Cole ended his life at the Swiss Dignitas Clinic in August. He suffered from aggressive lung cancer which had him bent double in pain, crouching like an animal. “That’s no life”, he said, “I should be able to die with dignity in my own country, in my own bed. The law needs to change”.
BUT changing the law leads to further and further changes. In 2002 when Euthanasia was legalised in Holland nobody imagined that by 2015 a mother suffering severe tinnitus and with two children would be legally killed. Nor did they foresee “Euthanasia on Wheels” mobile-units people can call if the family doctor is unwilling to authorise their death. There is always a “slippery slope”.
And note that the high profile cases in the pro-euthanasia camp such as Paul Lamb would not have been helped by this law anyway because they do not have less than 6 months to live. Even if this bill had been passed there would have been pressure for further changes. That is always the way to replace the law – a little at a time.
But there is a second, much simpler reason why assisted dying should not become a part of our law….. people change their minds. Alison Davies wanted to die for 10 years but had a change of heart even though her suffering continued. And you only have to “ask Google” to find recent cases of people requesting euthanasia and later changing their view.
Why Is This An Issue Now?
- Medical technology and modern drugs have caused huge improvements in our care, but there are consequences. For example between 1991 and 2001 UK life expectancy increased by 2.2 years. Sounds great! But in the same period, healthy life expectancy increased by only 0.6 years. One effect of technological innovation is a growing period at the end of our lives during which we can expect to be chronically ill*.
- Ageing populations – the UK Government Actuary Department calculated that in 70 years time there will be many thousands of Britons aged over 110*.
- Choice – we live in a world where we expect to choose everything, my kids’ school, my supermarket, my pension provider. Death is the last thing we cannot choose ….. but we try.
Western countries that allow euthanasia include Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and several US states. In France a law is imminent.
Is There An Answer?
One thing we should not do is over simplify the discussion or minimise people’s suffering. It’s easy to get behind conversation-terminating clichés like “life is sacred — not ours to end when we choose”, but you could equally argue: Why is only length of life sacred? Why is a person’s quality of life not sacred? There are cliches in both directions in this argument.
Baroness Finlay who opposed this bill said: “licensing doctors in this country to help people commit suicide risks mistakes, abuse and pressure on people who feel they are a burden. …. The law exists to protect us, especially the most vulnerable among us, from harm — including self-harm”.
I believe our current laws on assisted dying are imperfect but as good as they can be. Here euthanasia is illegal yet somehow possible in specific cases. Over 200 Britons have broken UK law by helping relatives go to Switzerland for an assisted death but none have been prosecuted. The slippery slope starts with a small shift in culture, changing people’s perception by degrees so that those with devastating illnesses start to be viewed differently, and start to view themselves differently.
We can live without that.
For an opposing point of view see Clerics Pro-Euthanasia letter to The Telegraph Aug 15
For an excellent summary of the Christian ethics see Keswick 2015 Seminar‑1 by John Wyatt
* Figures from Is There a Christian Case for Assisted Dying, Paul Badham