Politicians, hand-wringing, failed legislation and the future of Death

Westminster MPs voted against the Assisted Dying Bill for England and Wales today. The Scottish Parliament rejected a similar move last May.

Commentary by Derek Bateman

If there’s one piece of moral hypocrisy politicians are good at, it’s death. Or at least avoiding death…avoiding coming anywhere near death…avoiding even the mere mention of death. No, nothing to do with me, guv. Death? Doesn’t happen in my constituency.

The issue of assisted dying has become compromised by the Big Excuse – the denial that there is any need for such an unconscionable act, followed by the Washing-of-Hands by those who claim they are in politics to help or, God Forbid, to lead.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

Generations of hand-wringing politicos have given the proverbial body swerve to a sane and logical decision on the Death Question in order to keep themselves ‘untainted’ by it. Meanwhile, week after week some poor soul faces the end in agony and misery wondering why compassion only applies to those who, in some unforeseen future, may or may not feel pressure from a venal family to end it all soon. Let’s reserve our mercy for those we don’t know and who may never need it rather than ease the way for one of our own today.

There are many versions of what we mean by assisted dying and as the debate has evolved, so have the complexities, medical, legal and moral.Yet the fundamental question remains: Is it right to allow another human in terminal trauma to suffer grievously when they are asking for an early death? Indeed, is it our right – that of society – to deny the mercy of suicide to anyone in irreversible distress?

The answer to both questions of course is No. It is not right and we don’t have the right to stand aside in the face of slow and agonising death. Not only is that glaringly obvious to anyone except the self-declared religious zealots who demand the Bible is read literally but it is also the apparent view of the overwhelming number of British citizens who time and again support a change in the law – 82 per cent at the last count  (Populus 2015).

I don’t mean to offend those of you with religious beliefs (although that didn’t stop the official spokesman of the Catholic Church insulting me publicly when I wrote previously about this). A deeply-held view is just that. But by what right do you stop me having access to mercy because of your beliefs? That isn’t faith, it’s dogma.

The other key objections to dignity in death relate to human nature which might drive impatient families to nudge a loved one into suicide or make the sufferer feel guilty for remaining alive. This argument provides an illuminating light into the mind of deniers, bending as it does to base instinct rather than humanity. It’s like saying: I can’t trust myself not to egg a loved one on into suicide because I stand to benefit from the will. The temptation will be too much.

I once had an online discussion with a philosopher on the subject. He played the compassion card and declared how much he cared for those in suffering. He just couldn’t do the one thing they wanted that would end their suffering. It seemed to me it was easy in the abstract and hard to disagree – who wants to help kill another human? So the final question asked was: Would you feel the same if it was your daughter, your wife, your mother pleading for relief? To this there is no answer other than: I would do anything to end their suffering. And so you would.

This is not a plan to rid us wholsesale of the terminally ill, almost all of whom have a dignified and, as far as possible, a peaceful death in hospice care. That is, in its own way, an easing out of life and with the expertise gathered over the years it provides the right service for the majority. But science isn’t perfect and for some no cocktail of drugs can ease the pain and end the distress.

Even the courts are moving steadily towards accepting that there are conditions which in some cases could justify the right of a loved one to help a stricken individual to end their life.

But again, it goes back to the politicians and fear of their own judgement in a mirror image of their terror of accepting that drug addiction can be handled differently. These are, for most legislators, no-go areas where the people they represent will just have to suffer in silence. Turn the other way and pretend it isn’t true isn’t much of a message.