Assisted suicide would change the way we respond to despair

by Oxford Students for Life

Nathan Verhelst, a trans man from Belgium, had struggled with mental illness since childhood. At the age of 44, after a series of crises, he took his own life. Sadly, that is not so uncommon. What was unusual were the circumstances. Verhelst received a lethal injection from a doctor, as part of Belgium’s standard bureaucratic procedure for those in ‘unbearable suffering’. The doctor explained that Verhelst’s suffering qualified as unbearable because after six months of counselling he was still suicidal. If that kind of reasoning makes you uncomfortable – if you wonder whether six months of counselling amounts to everything that might have helped Nathan Verhelst – then look away now, because it could be coming to the UK.

 
If Rob Marris’s assisted suicide bill is passed on 11 September, and survives the rest of its progress through Parliament, this country will become more dangerous for the elderly, the ill, the disabled and the depressed. So say the British Medical Association, Disability Rights UK, and the Royal College of GPs. At the very least, the principle of caution should warn against this bill.

Everyone can feel the pull of the case for assisted suicide. Many people are in physical and psychological pain; they say, repeatedly, that they would rather be dead than alive. Who could possibly be indifferent to their distress, and their hope that it might end?

 
We experience a stab of guilt, hearing their stories. And guilt is not the worst motive. If it prompts us to help the people at the margins of our own community, or prompts government to improve palliative care, guilt can do a lot of good. But it is a poor basis on which to pass a law which will change the fabric of society. This law will not simply abolish a category of suffering: it will create new ones. The evidence everywhere suggests that the main result of assisted suicide laws is to surround unhappy, lonely people with exit signs.
In Oregon, the supposed paragon of such a law, the chief effect has not been on those in physical pain. Less than a quarter of those receiving poison say they are worried about pain, or even the possibility of pain; the main reasons are ‘loss of autonomy’ (91%) and ‘decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable’ (89%). According to a high estimate, over 30% of recipients in a single year may have had their judgment impaired by undiagnosed depression.

Still, to give Oregon its due, there is a fundamental difference from Britain. Oregon Right to Die, the body behind the law, were from the beginning moderates. Their intention, according to one of their leading figures, Eli Stutsman, was to ‘campaign for the right to die and against Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the same breath’. They were, if you like, doves rather than hawks.

The British right-to-die movement is different. It is a flock of hawks with some official doves fluttering around in the vanguard. The doves assure us that this Bill will go no further than Oregon’s restrictions: it will apply only to the terminally ill. (An elastic category in any case, as the disabilities campaigner Baroness Campbell has pointed out.) But the hawks are more articulate and more consistent in applying the logic of total self-determination. Baroness Warnock, a leading intellectual light of the movement, predicts a future in which ‘you’d be licensing people to put others down’. Polly Toynbee, one of Fleet Street’s most influential voices for a change in the law (and for further changes down the line), concedes the possibility ‘that the frail will be intimidated into hastening the end of their lives so as not to be a burden on their children’. She comments, in a disturbing foretaste of things to come: ‘Well, why not?’ The Economist recently proposed that the opportunity for taking poison be extended to people with depression. Well, in Belgium they are already living the dream. Euthanasia is up 25% on last year, and the law becomes ever less discriminating in its effects.

There, as Rachel Aviv reported in a must-read article for the New Yorker, euthanasia has taken away people with ‘autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression’. This is scarcely the picture painted by the likes of Dignity in Dying.

In 1931, the great psychologist Carl Jung noted that many of his patients suffered from ‘the senselessness and aimlessness of their lives… I should not object if this were called the general neurosis of our age’. If anything, that diagnosis is truer today. Suicide is the biggest killer of young British men, and the UK is incubating a crisis of loneliness and mental illness. Usually, we try to build hope and solidarity against despair. But Belgium has discovered an alternative. “If the patient’s energy is gone,” one euthanasia doctor tells Aviv, “then it is not humane to say, ‘Well, maybe if you go to a hospital that specializes in your problem for two more years it will help.’ I think we have to respect when people say, ‘No – that is enough.’” Sorry, doctor, but running out of energy is a symptom of depression: a lot of people feel that they have ‘had enough’, are useless, and would be better off dead. It makes all the difference whether they are listened to and given support to carry on. In some places, that seems to be going out of fashion.

The testimony of doctors suggests that when suicide becomes institutionalised, a society becomes anaesthetised to the preciousness of human life. One Dutch doctor recalled the first time he administered euthanasia. The first case was ‘terrible’, he said. His team agonised all day before carrying it out. The next one, he said, was much easier. ‘The third case’, he concluded, ‘was a piece of cake’. That is a report from the bottom of the slippery slope, and it turns out to be quite a short slope. Assisted suicide will weaken the bonds of society. It will nudge towards the edge exactly the people we should be hauling back from it. One day we might be asked if anybody tried to stop it.

 
To write to your MP, go to http://notoassistedsuicide.org.uk/

Dan Hitchens is a former President of Oxford Students for Life.

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