Leading article: Democratisation of death

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The Independent Online
Some people want to die. Perhaps they suffer from a painful and degenerative disease and have had enough. Cees van Wendel was one of these - allowed by Dutch law to die when he wanted, assisted by his wife and his GP and watched by a BBC camera crew.

Before last night's documentary was shown there were many calls for it not to be screened. The programme was "voyeuristic" and the BBC was "sick", said the Archdeacon of York . Alert, the anti-euthanasia society, called the transmission "disgraceful". The Motor Neurone Disease Association said that the programme would trigger needless fears among sufferers. "No one with MND should ever be confronted by a need to consider euthanasia ... the final stages of the disease should in every case be peaceful and dignified".

These protests are worthy, but betray a desire to protect us from ourselves. We can witness birth, watch a female orgasm, stand inside a busy accident and emergency department as the wounded are wheeled in - but witnessing a death, that is too dangerous, too difficult. The wrong conclusions could be drawn, people could be hurt.

These sentiments, despite the good intentions behind them, are essentially paternalistic and will be rejected by most people. Where once issues of life and death were the exclusive province of doctors, priests or academic philosophers, now people feel able to exercise their own judgement - especially when these directly affect them as individuals.

That is also why, for some time now, the tide of public opinion has been running in favour of liberalising the laws on euthanasia. As medicine allows us to live longer, sometimes in extreme ill health, the chances have increased of our being faced with a quality of life we do not want. There has been steadily increasing interest in the concept of "living wills", specifying circumstances where medical intervention should cease. Yesterday the Lord Chancellor announced the setting up of a working party to examine the legal status of such wills. It is a fair bet that sooner or later the law on both euthanasia and living wills will be changed to reflect public opinion.

But before that happens the arguments against this democratisation of death deserve a proper response. Let us suppose, argue opponents, that doctor-assisted euthanasia has been legalised and living wills given legal status. Imagine an old person, infirm and confused, whose care and accommodation costs are eroding the money he or she had hoped to leave the children. Might guilt or pressure, rather than intolerable pain, lead to a request to die? Even if this were not the case, how could any doctor be sure that no pressure was involved? And in an atmosphere where such deaths were common, would there not be a danger of a creeping cynicism about saving some lives - a comparison between those helped to die and those, just as ill, who chose obstinately to cling on to life?

Some of these things will happen. Guidelines, codes and safeguards can be implemented to minimise their effects (as in the Netherlands), but the dangers will still be there. Ultimately, however, those with the physical ability themselves, or possessing the sentience to persuade others, will find ways to die if that is what they want. It would be better and more moral to create a legally recognised mechanism that would allow individuals to take such decisions. If this freedom is what you would want for yourself, you must also be prepared to allow others their choice.

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