Choosing To Die
Matthew Rallison is a sixth-form student who is visiting the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics for his work experience placement.
Sir Terry Pratchett’s documentary, “Choosing to die” and the recent deaths of Ann McPherson and Jack Kevorkian (inventor of the Mercitron) have recently raised the debate of the legalisation of euthanasia, alongside criticism of the BBC’s bias favour towards the subject.
The latter of these issues is, to an extent, accurate as the programme echoes Pratchett’s support of euthanasia. Yet the conclusion of the programme, for me, offered personal reflection, rather than an affirmation that euthanasia (or assisted suicide) is morally correct. Watching, on screen, the death of Peter Smedley was not a compelling argument but humbling. Peter was unassuming as he fell out of consciousness. “A good death,” as Pratchett describes it. The scene offered a powerful impression of human dignity and spirit, rather than promoting death, or suicide. It supported virtue in life (or in leaving it). I reject the ex-Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali’s claim that it the programme depicted “glorified suicide.” It did not.
Campaigners for Care Not Killing argued that portrayal of suicide would lead to further suicides. This assertion also has little basis. Pratchett never endorses suicide, in poor health or otherwise. The emphasis is upon personal autonomy as two mens’ journey to Dignitas (euthanasia clinic based in Zurich) is followed. Pratchett offers equal respect to an individual’s decision to live with illness just as much as he respects those choosing to die; no option is judged morally proper. Furthermore the process of using Dignitas involves extensive health evaluations, tests of clarity of thought, travelling to Switzerland and around £10,000. There is nothing impulsive about the procedure and such a programme could not ‘open the floodgates’.
It is important to consider whether euthanasia is morally correct in itself. For me, this argument is overwhelmed via belief in one’s autonomy, which extends to how one dies. In theory rather than practice, euthanasia is a debate of rights. The argument to refute such a position has traditionally been concerned with the sanctity of life, a concept manifesting in much of mainstream religion but which may be held otherwise. However sanctity of life (the value of existing) is too simplistic in contemplating euthanasia. The value of life is far more profound than whether that life is in existence. Pratchett raises the point that it is not the sanctity, but the dignity of life which matters. Thus why should anyone be subject to a painful and suffered anticipation of death? That is not what being alive is about.
Pratchett remarked, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that the disease would regret choosing him and that his death would not be that which the disease intends. That he would die peacefully in the sunshine, with Thomas Tallis playing on his IPod as opposed to enduring the degeneration of all he values in life; Pratchett’s ability to type has already left him.
Consider Monsignor Thomas O’Brien who was 83 when he suffered a massive stroke and lost the ability to swallow or speak. He was put on a nasogastric feeding tube, which he pulled out of 15 times. Despite being examined by four psychiatrists who testified that he was capable of rational decisions affecting his life, a judge ordered he be put on a feeding gastronomy (a tube inserted directly into the stomach). The life-support mechanism was continued until he died.
I believe that an overwhelming compassion leads us to the conclusion that O’Brien should have been allowed to die at his will.
However the euthanasia debate centres on its potential legislation. The topic is not limited by its ethics, as discussion of policy infers more than the rightness or wrongness of an action in itself. As a policy, opposition cites concerns regarding how euthanasia would affect society if introduced. Consideration must be given to the protection of the vulnerable, the problem of doctors administering death and how such a policy impacts upon society’s outlook on life as a whole. These practical arguments against a euthanasia policy deserve to be taken seriously, but I believe they should be looked upon more as stipulations to be added to a euthanasia law, rather than arguments against having one; they would ensure a rigorous and effective policy in the UK.
It is such cases as Monsignor O’Brien and Peter Smedley that leave me convinced euthanasia is morally justifiable and correct. While practical fears of such a policy exist, I find it impossible for these to overwhelm my position in favour of euthanasia and thus it must be made possible for such a policy to be implemented well. The ethic is too important to be rejected due to various practical concerns.