The Right to Die as a Human Right

Two commentators on the recent appeal to the Supreme Court over the right to die, Baroness Jane Campbell (former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2006-2008) and Lord Carlile (Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords) present a stilted view of the situation. The position put forward by both is flawed, both through poor reasoning, and failing to focus on the individuals as rational and emotional beings who happen to be physically incapacitated.

In a stellar piece of fallacious reasoning Baroness Campbell said:

The main reason given for wishing to die is not wanting to become a burden, whether their family would see it that way or not. Against this background, the “quick-fix” of an assisted death appears attractive.

It is precisely because that is the majority view that we must continue to oppose it. There is no better evidence of the negativity with which terminal illness, chronic illness, and disability is viewed than that we might be better off dead.

Notice how in the first paragraph she speaks of the main reason for those wanting assisted death for themselves, but in the second paragraph, she states that the majority view must be opposed. So we must resist the majority view of those most directly affected by any such future law? I think she meant to say that it if the majority view of the able-bodied was to be pro-right to die, against the wishes of the incapacitated, that we must resist that. And she would be right, if that were the case, but, by her own words, that is not the case. If the majority of those that would be in the position to opt for the right to die are in favour – and I suspect that the majority of empathic individuals who are not personally affected by the issue would, likewise, be in favour of it – then it is a law that must be seriously looked at. Perhaps the Baroness would like to clarify her point (and cite her sources whilst she’s at it).

For some reason, the Baroness thinks that the individual that is suffering through a debilitating illness is somehow no longer able to make rational decisions based on their own empathy for the dilemma of their loved ones. Maybe, as an incapacitated person with a fierce desire to live, herself, she is unable to empathise with someone that does not have that drive, or who expresses other equally strong but still perfectly human drives. An able-bodied person makes decisions about what they will and won‘t do based, in part, upon the impact of those actions on the people around them. In the case of many of the terminally ill and incapacitated, this element of self-determination has been taken away from them, and the Baroness would seek to extend this by perpetuating the removal of this element of their legal personhood.

In a similar vein, after the ruling came down against the right to die, Lord Carlile said:

There are other people involved in these cases. The subject may wish to commit suicide, but his or her children may see things in a completely different way. They may value every minute of the rest of that person’s life, and so rights are not merely in the mind of the person, of the individual concerned, there are other people involved too, and we need to take a broader view than is sometimes advocated.

Why, if someone is of sound mind, is that person’s right to self-determination removed, and instead ceded to their relatives? We are concerned about the dehumanising of the terminally ill and incapacitated, but here we have rendered them down to the legal status of chattel. So in trying to offer dignity (which is, I assume, the goal of Campbell and Carlile), instead we offer ignominy. Why can the relatives not “value every minute” of a finite and determined time with their loved one? That is something that the families of cancer patients are not afforded. Why is the family’s emotional pain allowed to trump the mental, physical, and emotional pain of the individual?

Indeed both Campbell and Carlile seem to be treating incapacitated humans as merely physical beings, due to their physical condition, and not thinking of their emotional well-being at all. This is best illustrated by another comment from Lord Carlile:

There are very few people who die in agony. Some do, but there are very few people who die in agony as a result of an inability to treat pain.

When did the physical become the sole determiner of an individual’s quality of life? What if a previously very physical person is suddenly incapable of movement? Daniel James, the rugby player who took his life after becoming paralysed from the chest down, felt that he could not thrive after the loss of physical movement. Another rugby player, Matt Hampson, saw his paralysis as a challenge. Can anyone say which of these two men is “right”? The only ‘right’ here, is the one of self-determination.

On this matter Baroness Campbell also sets up a false dichotomy by saying:

We help those with suicidal thoughts look for positives in their lives. I believe chronically ill and disabled people deserve that “right”, to be helped by us all to live their lives.

Indeed. Most calls for right to die legislation also call for appropriate counselling and that checks and balances be in place to minimise abuse. Counselling is, or is called upon to be, a mandatory part of the process for gender re-assignment, and even relatively minor plastic surgery. Campbell points to the media exposés of abuse in care homes as potentially indicative of the way that the incapacitated are treated, but then counselling, properly undertaken, would uncover these problems, as well as any duress associated with it.

In conclusion, Baroness Campbell said:

I didn’t want Tony Nicklinson to die and I don’t want Paul Lamb to die. I respect and value them. I want them to carry on disagreeing with me for as long as possible.

Why, Baroness Campbell, does what you want have any bearing on what they do? It is called self-determination for a reason. You can determine your course for yourself, something which you have shown yourself amply capable of doing, but these brave individuals should be allowed the same right for themselves. If you respect them, you should respect their decision, even if you disagree with it.

To conclude, Baroness Campbell is understandably nervous about right to die legislation that is too broad, too permissive, too open to abuse. So, I imagine, is anyone who is pro-right to die. Her position, however admirable for its motives, is not helped by misrepresenting her own facts and by using fallacious reasoning. And it is fatally undermined by Lord Carlile displaying a startling lack of empathy. The right to die is a logical extension of the right to self-determination. Counselling, in an effort to determine the state of mind from within which the decision is being made, is clearly a necessity, and such checks and balances can be put in place, through consultation, in the writing into law of the right to die. The writing of such a law is the context in which these discussions should be had, not here, not now, actively stopping any such law from being formulated in the first instance.


About COEXISTential

I'm a psychology graduate, about to undertake a Masters. I did my first degree at 36 for various reasons, and am contunuing in my education for better reasons. The focus of my research is the psychology of morality, and thus also religion and politics. The focus of this blog is to apply my learnings from this research to the tricky problem of fixing the world. I am a progressive liberal, humanist, and agnostic-atheist, but the individuality of my principles is more important than the labels under which they broadly fall. So let's talk about life, the universe, and everything, and how best for us humans to exist within it.
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