Sunday, August 02, 2009

Assisted Suicide.

Two articles in today's Mail on Sunday have been read twice by this blogger. The rest of today's copy is c**p, (especially the quite incredible tripe which filled page three). The subject under discussion was assisted suicide. The writers were Terry Pratchett and William Rees-Mogg. High class content of intellectual power, unmatched by anything in today's Telegraph. Terry Pratchett is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease (and has already done a truly wonderful job in opening up discussion and understanding of this terrible affliction). He tells us that he will want to commit suicide before the disease finally "wipes his brain clean". Like Debbie Purdy, he makes an argument which is almost impossible to challenge. I know that the majority will side with these two impressive individuals, but yet again I find myself in a minority on a great social issue of our time. I'm with William Rees-Mogg on this - as is usually the case.

I fully accept that the law on assisted suicide is illogical. Our law often is. We know that there have been several cases where 'assistance' of some sort has been given to people who have travelled abroad to end their own lives. On the face of it, this is not lawful. And yet, no action has been taken. The Director of Public Prosecutions has decided in every case to use his discretion to take no action. But last week, there was an important ruling which presages big change. The Law Lords agreed with Debbie Purdy, who suffers from MS, that the DPP should prepare clear and definite guidance on when 'assistance' would be legal, and when it would be illegal. The discretion would remain with the DPP, but the rules by which the discretion would apply must be framed in law, so that everyone knows the circumstances when action legal action will follow assisting someone to commit suicide. Its difficult to disagree with this - until you think it through.

No-one, unless guided by strong religious belief will see anything wrong with assistance being given to two such strong characters as Terry Pratchett and Debbie Purdy. They will probably know when the time to go has been reached. But so many others are not strong minded, and many will be hopelessly vulnerable when they are ill and old. In a few year's time we will reach a stage when it will become standard practice to inform the old and ill that they have the right to assistance to commit suicide. Oh yes, there will be safeguards and assurances, but people who love their families, and feel a responsibility to help them financially rather than be a continuing burden will become increasingly pressured (from within themselves, rather than from unscrupulous beneficiaries from an earlier death) to kill themselves.

The idea is that the law should become 'definite'. Debbie Purdy persuaded the Law Lords that she needs to know precisely what her husband can do, to protect him from criminal sanction. But the law is never definite. Its based on precedent and majority opinion. Every time the DPP exercises discretion it will creating new precedent and there will continue to be argument about individual cases. What I fear is a ratchet of death, whereby the circumstances in which assisted suicide is legal will rapidly expand to a degree that creates a level of pressure on the old and ill that I will find unacceptable. When we look at other jurisdictions across the world we see law that we consider deeply immoral. Well, I fear that through responding to the emotional argument presented to them, the Law Lords have created an opening for immorality to become embedded in our own law.


MH said...

Glyn, I don't think that you're right to say that a decision by the DPP whether or not to prosecute constitutes legal precedent. Only decisions by the courts constitute precedent.

For the law to work in the way you describe it would be necessary for everyone who appears to have a case to answer to be prosecuted. And then for the decisions reached by the courts to build up sufficient precedent for people to get some sort of idea of what the law actually is.

That is just too Kafka-esque for me. Law does need to be definite. We all need to know what the criteria for a potential prosecution will be. This decision by the law Lords has recognized that.


As for morality, that is a completely different question. There is all the difference in the world between what is right or wrong, and what is legal or illegal. I suggest that if you were to see that distinction more clearly your fears, which I think are quite reasonable, would be largely allayed.

As a parallel, consider abortion. Making it legal to have an abortion does not in any way affect the morality of the situation. Many people are convinced that abortion is immoral, even though it is not illegal. However, those who hold that opinion must argue their case on the grounds of morality and conscience, acknowledging that the decision is not theirs to make but can ultimately only be made by the woman concerned.

You talk about pressure being applied, but I would suggest that the pressure (one way or the other) is just as great, sometimes greater, in the case of abortion than it would be in the case of suicide. If we, as a society, can handle the first in a mature and balanced way, I think we should be just as likely to be able to handle the second.

terove said...

We seem to be in the business of late of ignoring 'risk'. A systemic failure to quantify risk is at the heart of the current recession/depression. (E.g., first layer of lenders lending without proper regard to risk because they passed on the risk of the loans to others in the lending food chain who bundled-securitized-internationalized the risk, and vola – a real estate collapse that has driven some European countries like Spain into rapid economic decline.

About the same time was the human chimera risk - we just thought it was OK if there was a medical angle of some kind, never mind we were formally allowing the laboratory creation of human-animal crosses at the most fundamental level (e.g., human nuclear DNA and animal mitochondrial DNA in the same egg cell). "Super-soldiers" and/or 'super-nightmares' - but hey, so long as it has a medical angle 'so what'.

Now we want to tilt the slipery slope even further - there's a big push to legalize assisted suicide.

We have become so arrogant we think nothing of the things we are doing to mankind at the most fundamental level ... and through that arrogance we are taking enormous risks with mankind.

But hey, if we don't cover the Welsh countryside with 300 ft+ wind-turbines the planet we will be responsible for ... for ... the end of mankind ...

… wow

Welsh Pikelets in DC metroland said...

… something a bit 'off the grid' to tantalize your taste buds Glyn.

Not quite from ‘the far side’, or an “X-file” or even a “Warehouse 13” SyFy artifact, and certainly not anything from the ‘Twilight Zone’.

My mother and I have the symptoms of H1NI (swine flu, but I hasten to add not lab confirmed) and we don't know of any local source of H1N1 that we could have come into inadvertent contact with. We’ve spent the last week or so essentially indoors at home.

So how could we have contracted H1N1 given that we have been at home and there aren’t many cases of H1N1 in the Washington, DC metro area?

Then it dawned on me.

Mum has had lots of letters from home (Cardiff) and there apparently there is something like 462 estimated number of swine flu cases (July 31, 2009) in Cardiff with 88 cases of laboratory-confirmed swine flu cases (source: Western Mail).

So while it is perceived ‘fact’ that mail or parcels does not pose a substantial risk of transmitting H1N1 – on its face it seems that is the only known link between me, mum and H1N1.

Kind of interesting don’t you think?

Wales wants to export its stuff to the USA for job and wealth creation back home – just did not figure on exporting H1N1 via the regular mail ‘that’s all’.

Could be the first case of H1N1 delivered by air-mail from the ‘green-green fields of home’.

Such a heart story – if we ignore the awful behind the eyes headache, sinus, some diarrhea, feeling lousy/weak, and aches and pains.

Glyn Davies said...

MH - Yes it is the court which will create precedent, but in practical terms the judgement will follow a decision by the DPP to prosecute.

My preferred course would have been a continuation of what has happened over many decades - the law has looked the other way. But I accept that the Law Lords decision has changed things fundamentally. There will now have to be an attempt to formulate specific rules about when prosceutions will take place. In my opinion it will prove impossible to do this in any definitive way - and we will see a steady growth in the circumstances where assisting suicide becomes 'legal'.

I have not sought to relate this issue to morality, but to how the ruling will impact on reality. And you draw comparison with the law in relation to abortion - which has become a form of contraception today, with over 200,000 abortions every year. I do not consider that we as a society have handled abortion in 'a mature and balanced way'. We have handled it is a shockingly permissive way, and this is what I expect to now see in relation to the law on suicide, assisted or not.

terove - I do think we are taking terrible risks with some of the decisions we now make. We seem to be driven by the impact of the law on individuals, with insufficient regard for the integrity of law itself. The maxim 'Hard cases make good law' has been jettisoned

terove said...

Glyn> spot on Glyn. Whether it is arrogance, impatience, a failure to understand the risks/implications for mankind - the decisions recently made in our name will haunt man/woman kind.

We have made some very awful mistakes. Allowing the creation of laboratory human-animal chimeras being just one. The uses of live embryos for stem cell research another (especially given that adult stem cells are proving to be of far greater medical use and avoid the use of tissue rejection drugs).

The human-chimera experiments now authorized by the UK government are just too awful for words.

At least there were some souls who objected and understood by every fibre/fiber in their body that this was grave error.

Now it is law.

MH said...

Glyn, You cannot say this in your original post:

"When we look at other jurisdictions across the world we see law that we consider deeply immoral. Well, I fear that through responding to the emotional argument presented to them, the Law Lords have created an opening for immorality to become embedded in our own law."

... and THEN claim:

"I have not sought to relate this issue to morality."

Glyn Davies said...

MH - Sorry about my sloppy use of words. I shouldn't have used the word 'immoral' though many would think it so. I was thinking of law such as Sharia law, forced marriages, honour killing and other discrimination against women etc.. Better words would have been unjust, inhuman, plain wrong etc.. After all one man's reality is another man's core belief. Good piece on this issue in this week's Sunday Times by Mathew Parris.

sweets said...

Sorry but i don't think so...

Anonymous said...

As regards the tripe on Page 3 of the Mail on lie down with dogs and get fleas. Or swarms of them in LO's case !