At the minimum, recognising the dignity of human life means aiming to preserve it – whether other people’s or your own.
Hot on the heels of Mary Warnock’s outrageous opining on what she called the “duty” of elderly people with dementia to have their lives ended, in order not to waste resources and for the greater good of society, we now have legal moves underway in both England and Scotland to change the law in order to make it easier for people to “help” others to end their lives.
In England, Debbie Purdy has won the right to a High Court review to clarify the law on assisted suicide. Although suicide itself is not a crime, it is a criminal offence to help someone else to commit suicide, and Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, wants clarification on what legally counts as assistance. (BBC report here.)
Meanwhile in Scotland, a motion tabled by Lib Dem MSP Jeremy Purvis calling for assisted suicide to be legalised is to go ahead and be debated by the parliament. Unlike his previous attempt in 2005, when his bill failed to gain enough support from other MSPs to proceed, this current motion is being treated as having cross-party support, now that the independent MSP Margo Macdonald has joined forces with him.
But as organisations like the Care Not Killing Alliance consistently point out, the main change that is needed is not so much something to make it easier for people’s lives to be ended, as ways to support people to live out their lives in the context of as much comfort, love, and dignity as possible.
The Care Not Killing Alliance’s response to Debbie Purdy’s High Court review makes the issues clear – and what they say in terms of multiple sclerosis can be applied much more broadly:
“There are over 70,000 people in Britain with multiple sclerosis at present and only a very small number ever request assisted suicide. These requests are virtually never persistent if patients’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs are properly addressed. Our key priority must therefore be to make the very best palliative care more widely accessible and to get rid of the postcode lottery of care that currently exists in Britain.
“We are concerned about Mrs Purdy’s expressed fear of choking to death or experiencing excruciating pain because with good palliative care these fears are quite groundless with multiple sclerosis. The public is being misled over this. There have been great advances in the management of multiple sclerosis which have benefited patients and now mean that many with the disease live an almost normal lifespan. Mrs Purdy has had MS for 13 years already and may have many more years still to live. It is also not at all clear, given the type of illness she has, that she would ever need assistance to end her life, should she be determined to do so. This case has to be seen therefore in the wider context of an ongoing campaign by Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, to change the law.”