Life can be full of pain and every sympathy should be extended to those who wish to die in dignity and peace. But legalisation leads to bureaucratisation, turning a matter of complex moral concern into one of legal box-ticking. Worse still, as we are seeing in the Benelux countries, it has the potential to become "normal". Not only would this encourage ruthless relatives to persuade relatives to choose death, but it may also add to the wider societal pressure for the aged or the ill to see themselves as a "burden" on everybody else. We are already being bombarded with messages that our population is growing unmanageably old, fostering a culture of death. That is a culture that does not instinctively cherish all lives equally but rather directs attention and resources away from the infirm and towards the young and healthy.
Legalisation leads to bureaucratisation, turning a matter of complex moral concern into one of legal box-ticking.
|Prime Minister Cameron
David Cameron is right to warn of the dangers of legalising assisted suicide. Under the 1961 Suicide Act it is technically a criminal offence to help someone to die, but the Director of Public Prosecutions already issued guidelines four years ago to indicate that anyone who acted "out of compassion" would be unlikely to face charges. And yet Lord Falconer's Bill to legalise assisted dying is before the Lords and the Government has indicated that it would permit a free vote on a measure that does not reflect a genuine need. Unless defeated, it could be the first uncertain step on a very slippery slope.
For a sense of what lies at the bottom of that slope, consider the Netherlands and Belgium. The Dutch liberalised euthanasia in 2001 and it was supposed to be limited to those with "unbearable and hopeless suffering" whose mental faculties were acute and who had no hope of relief. Since legalisation, the number of people dying through medical euthanasia has doubled - thanks in part to the operation of mobile euthanasia units that allow people to take their own life even if family doctors have refused to offer help. Among those who have died have been those with chronic depression and those in the early stages of dementia. In Belgium, meanwhile, euthanasia is now the cause of one in 50 deaths. A recent, high-profile example was that of 44-year-old Nathan Verhelst, who was helped to die when a botched sex-change operation left him with "unbearable psychological suffering". Belgium has just become the first country in the world to permit euthanasia for chronically ill children.
One of the most important principles of medicine is "non-maleficence", the ancient pledge to do no harm. The emphasis of health care must be to treasure life and safeguard it. The push for assisted suicide is a troubling challenge to that fine tradition.