Assisted dying and the unequal value of life

Disabled people and elderly people fear “mission creep” with assisted dying. No wonder given that, despite what you may have heard, physical pain is not in the top five reasons given by those asking for "assistance" The equal value we place on human life now risks being lost

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Assisting unequal dying?
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Kevin Yuill
On 31 August 2015 07:42

Amidst discussion of slippery slopes, safeguards, and low numbers of likely candidates, we have lost sight of a fundamental change that will take place if Rob Marris’ assisted dying bill passes.

Right now, the law reflects the equal value we place on every human life. This principle will be lost if we legalise assisted dying.

How? Proponents will argue the bill covers only those few who are dying and who no longer wish to suffer the final stages of their diseases. Surely, they argue, this is not too big a step to take to alleviate suffering?

But it is a big step to take -- this group will become the first exception to our present moral sanction against taking human lives.

Consider our proscription of murder and manslaughter. We do not, at present, differentiate between the killing of a 24-year old with a bright future and an 86-year old who is dying of cancer; both acts are equally wicked.

Nor would most want to change the law to reflect whether the victim was rich or poor, English or Afro-Carribean in background, whether they drove a white van or a Prius. Killing the 86-year old is not less bad than killing the 24-year old; both acts would be equally wrong.

Why should this be any different for assisted dying? Why would we not only assent to but participate in the killing of another human being simply because that person deemed their life to be too wretched? The value of a life is not solely assessed by the owner of that life, a fact that is reflected in our efforts to prevent suicides.

Just as a great artist is sometimes not the best judge of the value of their works, sometimes we are not the best judge of the value of our lives.

Yet the proposed legislations identifies one group of people who are excused from any moral implications of suicide. By Dignity in Dying’s Orwellian definition, ingesting poison with the intent to kill yourself is not suicide if you have a terminal illness (hence the euphemism).

In Oregon, the causes of deaths through the Death With Dignity (DWD) Act are listed as the underlying disease, rather than the ingestion of sodium thiopental. But poisoning oneself is suicide, just as much as is hanging or shooting oneself.

Those without a terminal illness, should they express the wish to die, have care agencies ready and waiting to save their lives. Those with a terminal illness who are teetering on the proverbial bridge, conversely, will be offered a metaphoric push if Marris’s bill passes, so valueless will their lives be.

As the government report, “Preventing Suicide in England”, noted, “every suicide is a tragedy”. Unless you are terminally ill, some would like to add.

Terminally-ill people are still people and when they express the wish to die, are not so different than others who are upset or depressed. On the contrary, as Living and Dying Well, a leading anti-assisted dying think-tank explains, these people are likely to suffer from undiagnosed issues such as depression, rendering them even more vulnerable.

Everyone, with planning and determination, can kill themselves with no assistance. It might be pertinent to ask what that person really wants when they ask for assistance.

But what of the protracted and painful dying process they fear? Pain does not come in the top five reasons given. Instead, fear of loss of autonomy, fear of inability to do the things that make life enjoyable, and fear of loss of bodily functions are the top three. Even fear of being a burden on one’s family is more important than pain.

No wonder disabled people and elderly people fear “mission creep” -- these reasons particularly apply to them.

Defining the value of human life in physical terms -- as the proposed legislation does -- threatens those without “quality of life”, subsuming sections of individuals each of whom has experiences, loves, preference, tastes, and knowledge that makes really defining quality of life impossible.

Dr. Kevin Yuill is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Sunderland

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