British law is caught in a neverneverland over assisted suicide. It’s kind of illegal (by statute) and kind of legal (by the the Director of Public Prosecutions guidelines – as long as you satisfy criteria retrospectively). So what’s a genuine, suffering, rational, and unrelievably ill person meant to do? Risk getting friends and relatives into trouble? Sell their home to go to Switzerland? Die in martyrdom in the hope that things will “one day change”?
To try to move things forward in one direction or another, a Commission has been formed.
“The reason for addressing the assisted dying debate at this point in time is that the legal and ethical status of assisted dying in our society continues to be an unresolved public policy issue. The Commission for Assisted Dying starts from the premise that, while assisted dying may be illegal in the UK, it remains possible for those with the financial and physical ability to seek assistance to die, for instance by travelling overseas or by engaging non-medical assistance at home.”
Exit has contributed thoughtful evidence to many commissions, working parties and think tanks. But the result is often the same: no matter how convincing the evidence or the wishes of the public, politicians are not “swayed.” In parliament, there is no compunction, for instance, to use standards of logic and evidence the way a court a would, or even a scientific, peer-reviewed paper. They vote. With or without a party whip. End of story. So merely “good arguments,” as Schopenhauer would have pointed out, are simply not enough. Neither are we likely to see thousands of desperately ill people chaining themselves to railings in public protest. What is needed is a new direction.
The right-to-die movement has always ‘accepted’ palliative care and the hospice movement. Has always ‘accepted’ the rights of people who would not want euthanasia. And has always ‘accepted’ that vulnerable groups must be protected. But to be broadly acceptable to a parliament made jittery by vocal opponents of assisted dying this is not enough. Legislation, both in theory and usually in practice, should broadly satisfy all sections of the population, at least in the longer term. Politicians are also sensitive to subjects that might be legitimate yet the equivalent of ‘political suicide’: assisted dying is often seen as one of these.
Effective campaigning by pressure groups generally needs massive resources. (Examples of effective pressure group influence include reducing the age of consent for homosexual acts conducted in private, and the ban on fox hunting.) Most changes tend to occur through political interests or simple convergence. An example being when law was passed in England and Wales on Advance Directives (living wills). This was the result of pressure not from public groups (although that helped) but from consensus between leading medical and legal bodies.
Right-to-die pressure groups (and their supporters, and maybe even the great proportion of the silent public) frequently over-estimate their influence. We ‘keep it in the public eye.’ Talk about, ‘how the tide is turning.’ But 75 years after the first right-to-die society, we are only incrementally further forward.
Yet if consensus can make a difference, why are right-to-die societies not trying harder to take the lead? The main push, understandably but not necessarily effectively, is always to promote the rights of our supporters and include the rights of others. This is the wrong way round. It should be to promote the rights of everyone and incidentally and strongly include the rights we seek.
Palliative care groups and small but influential disability groups see changes to assisted dying law as threatening. The answer might not be to beat them into a pulp with statistics and facts, but to incorporate their rights and enhance them while making allowance for those who sincerely choose assisted death. This could result in (much needed) greater provision of palliative care as well as increased rights and protections for those who see themselves as part of a vulnerable group. Both Oregon and the (short-lived) Northern Territory aid-in-dying legislation was tailored to achieve greater benefits in these areas.
To win, we need to win for everybody. Being ‘right’ is far from being ‘enough.’ Altruism towards our ‘opponents’ is the way of human understanding. Not just for their needs: but for ours.
Director of Public Prosecutions guidelines
Commission for Assisted Dying website
Exit’s evidence in full
The Art of Being Right – Schopenhauer’s political thesis on ‘winning arguments’
MPs, pressure groups and legislative change (short essay)
You can also read and watch evidence from other parties at the Commission’s website.