Whose death is it anyway?

Duncan ponders Assisted DyingIMG_7560

In February this year the BBC aired a documentary called “Simon’s Choice”, following the story of a man with Motor Neurone Disease who decided to end his life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. The programme showed how Simon’s determination not to end his life helplessly had led to his decision, and the implications for his wife, family and friends.

During the last year or two many countries have been debating Assisted Suicide.  These include various states in America, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  Last year the UK parliament voted decisively against a proposed change in the law which would have allowed Physician Assisted Suicide, despite very strong public support for such a measure.

The debate around the world usually follows the same pattern.  On one side of the argument are people who feel passionately that everyone should have the right to decide how and when to end their own lives, if they get to the point that life becomes unbearable.  The strongest voices here often come from those with a severe neurological condition (like Simon), or from those who have cared for a relative with such an illness. It seems that it is not so much physical suffering so much as the gradual loss of control and dignity which threatens, towards the end, to rob life of all its meaning.

Those who argue equally strongly against a change in the law sometimes base their views on the “sanctity of life”, which has formed part of the tradition of many religious faiths.  Those with this standpoint say that although everything possible should be done to relieve suffering, for the state to sanction suicide is a line that must not be crossed.  Others follow the “slippery slope” argument, believing that were assisted dying to become accepted as normal, there would be great pressure on people to take that step if they felt that they were a burden or that their lives were useless.

Both sides of this debate are, in effect, trying to provide an answer to the question at the top of this piece. Whose death is it anyway?  Is it my life and thus ultimately my choice alone when to end it?  Or do I have responsibilities not just to my immediate family – for I may have none – but to the wider society to which I belong and which has provided me with the context in which I have lived?

I find myself genuinely perplexed by the issue. I used to be instinctively against Assisted Suicide, but that was before I had listened to those with a terminal illness who were advocating it. I wondered what right I had to stand in their way, when I could not share their experience.  But then I reflect that we are none of us “an island”: all of us receive, in a sense, our very identity from our relationships with others. Do I have the right to decide when to end it all, especially if those close to me still think that my life has value for them?

The Kicking the Bucket Festival will provide the opportunity to consider the ethics of Assisted Dying on the evening of 1st November, with Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford University. For more details see the “Diary of Events”.

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