Two stories in the headlines last week highlighted the clumsy truth of that old adage ‘hard cases make bad law’. These stories were both about ‘the right to die’. The law lords backed Debbie Purdy’s appeal to have the law on assisted suicide clarified and took us a step closer to legalising assisted suicide in the UK. At the same time, the story in the headlines two days before about teenager Hannah Jones’ literal change of heart concerning a life-saving heart transplant she had originally refused should make us stop and think about the consequences of enshrining a ‘right to die’ in law.
However, the law is made out of cases, easy and hard, and judicial precedent and test cases all have their part to play in both interpretation of the law and the formation of new laws. But as a society we should be wary of building a moral and social argument for or against euthanasia on the basis of individual cases.
To put my cards on the table, I am against legalising physician assisted suicide and I am deeply concerned about the ‘right to die’ becoming an everyday fact of life in our hospitals. Debbie Purdy could teach people who are blessed with full health a thing or two about fighting spirit and you would have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by what faces Purdy and her husband, Omar Puente. When you see the love and dedication between such a couple, as you could see the love and dedication between Diane Pretty and her husband Brian, it seems obvious that the humane and compassionate thing is to allow someone to help end their loved one’s life when death is inevitable and is desired. On the other hand, Hannah Jones is a cautionary tale against meeting someone’s desire to die, a 14 year-old who stated that she did not want any more medical intervention and wanted to die with dignity, but changed her mind when death seemed inevitable and a heart transplant was her only option.
Hard cases indeed. But neither case should be the starting point for working out what is right and wrong when it comes to what we, as society, think about the ‘right to die’. That starting point has to be society in its totality. As much as I admire the courage of Debbie Purdy I think what she is trying to achieve is wrong from a wider social perspective. Equally, I would be foolish to build a case against the ‘right to die’ on the example of a teenager changing her mind.
The truth is that all individual cases that touch on euthanasia and the right to die are hard. Everyone who has experienced a loved one dying in pain and degenerating into a shell of the person we knew will have asked the question ‘Wouldn’t death be kinder than this?’ And yet very often, however cruel the disease suffered, there are still moments cherished in the blackest of times and when death comes it can be equally a relief and devastating for those left. But personal experience – and whatever conclusions it may lead you to – is a dangerous touchstone here. We need to take a wider, longer view and ask more probing questions of our own society. Why, for example, is the growing and increasingly vociferous support for euthanasia not matched by an equally growing and vociferous support for more and better palliative care and state funding for hospices?
We would do well to keep asking what the ‘right to die’ and physician assisted suicide means not for individuals but society. What would changing the formal, legal relationship between a patient and doctor from ‘do no harm’ to ‘help end life’ say about us as a society and the value we put on life? The ‘right to die’ divorced from the context of individual cases, where it may seem to be both the right and compassionate thing, takes on a different tone and has different connotations. Where is the ‘right to die’ as a social mantra headed in a society where Malthusian views of population control are making a comeback and where we view an ageing population not as a success of modernity and medical progress but as a burden on an already stretched NHS? If we accept the ‘right to die’ as a social right, a social norm, are we on a slippery slope where we end up concluding as a society that some lives are not worth living, that there is an easy equation between physical well-being and quality of life?
I have tremendous sympathy for anyone who takes their own life, whatever the circumstances and for whatever reasons. I also sympathise with doctors who find that the most humane, compassionate thing to do is to help a patient end their life. But this is very different from society sanctioning and supporting doctors taking that life. It is right that doctors should fear the approbation of society when they take a life, for whatever reason. Society can be sympathetic when someone is on the edge of the bridge. But society should not cheer the push that sends that person to their death.