Flickr / Joaquin Villaverde


John Deighan FAITH MAGAZINE March - April 2015

Members of the Scottish Parliament will vote on whether to legalise assisted suicide in May. John Deighan now explains why it’s crucial for the common good of society that Holyrood’s parliamentarians vote against the proposal.

“If you really, really want something then that should suffice for justifying it.” That pretty much summarises the position of the advocates for assisted suicide. The Scottish Parliament is considering a bill which would legalise those with a “life-limiting condition” having assistance in killing themselves. The assistance would be provided by the proposed new post of a suicide facilitator. The Humanist Society Scotland has already indicated that it has members eager to fulfil the role. It would require a doctor to agree that a patient met the requirements of the bill before they are helped to die. The so-called safeguards include the approval of a second doctor and thus the process for ending a human life could very quickly be further embedded in our society.

England and Wales are facing similar proposals that are being pushed by Lord Falconer. Inevitably, we have all been subjected to the hard sell by the BBC and others, who have used the cases of people such as Tony Nicklinson, Debbie Purdy, Kay Gilderdale, Terry Pratchett, Anne Turner, Diane Pretty to promote their agenda. So unstinting has been the effort to portray as virtuous the ending of the lives of the weak that it brings to mind Pope Benedict’s words to the College of Cardinals in 2012: “We see how evil wants to dominate the world,” he said, and how it uses cruelty and violence, but also how it “masks itself with good and, precisely in this way, destroys the moral foundations of society.”

The evidence delivered to the Scottish Parliamentary Committee scrutinising the bill has emphatically exposed the dangers of assisted suicide. Yet media coverage has poorly reflected that fact. Public opinion polls show that the majority would favour laws that permitted assisted suicide. Troublingly, this majority includes many who describe themselves as Catholic. Some hope was offered in a more sophisticated poll commissioned by Christian Action Research and Education, which invited respondents to consider five arguments against assisted suicide to see if these changed their views.

Different concerns chime with different people, but cumulatively the considerations resulted in support for legalisation dropping to 43 per cent. Ignorance is indeed our enemy, and we face the task of informing a public hindered by media that typically favour anything perceived as “respecting autonomy”. But the belief in absolute autonomy is quickly shown to be ill-founded. The impossibility of detecting coercion is one factor. In Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1994, families have been known to coach elderly relatives how to ask for help ending their lives, especially when an inheritance is at stake. The Scottish Parliament heard evidence of one family who appeared very attentive to their elderly relative but suddenly lost all interest when the lady concerned reached an age at which her insurance policy would no longer pay out on her death.

Laws typically aim to protect citizens from those who might do them harm. Assisted suicide laws, however, enable those who are determined to die to have help to do so, while at the same time creating a system by which people can be ushered towards their death, not through their own choice but because circumstances push them in that direction. Dr Sally Witcher of Inclusion Scotland, a disability rights group, argued that “coercion is unlikely to take the form of somebody hitting somebody else over the head with a blunt object – that is not what happens.

It is much more indirect than that; it is about the messages from the culture that surrounds us. We are part of that and we absorb the messages about our life being worth less, about being scroungers and all the rest of it. We absorb messages about being a burden on the taxpayer. We could say that that is not coercion, but there is that pressure and culture, alongside the fear of becoming disabled.” Coercion can take countless subtle forms, but a good palliative care specialist understands that expressing a wish to die is often a proxy for asking: “Do you care about me? Am I worth anything?” Getting the wrong response can be what pushes a person to depression and despair. We know too that depression is a key contributor to suicidal thoughts. Implicitly, we know that suicide is wrong. Yet we are in danger of creating a system whereby we would be saying to some people that they are mistaken in wanting to die while affirming that others are making the right choice and we’ll help them.

It has taken a considerable effort to dull the natural abhorrence of suicide to the extent that people now talk about it being legal to commit suicide and argue for a right to suicide. This loses sight of why an assisted suicide act was passed in Westminster in 1961 which removed the criminal punishment for those who attempted suicide. Far from accepting the rightfulness of the choice, the act was grounded in a compassionate recognition that those who attempted suicide needed help rather than being dragged through the courts to end in jail. Why else did the Suicide Act include a hefty sentence almost on a par with homicide for those who assisted suicide?

No doubt the efforts to make suicide acceptable are a symptom of the culture of death, which has grown with individualism. As social bonds and structures weaken, so too do the support structures that give us meaning for living and also the reason for caring. Radical autonomy, to the extent of insisting that I can dispose of my life, is part of a vision of human life in which we exist for ourselves and our personal enjoyment. When the enjoyment apparently falls below an acceptable level, what is the point of hanging around? Or so goes the theory.

Attempts to legalise assisted suicide can perhaps be forestalled for the moment because politicians are still considering the arguments. Meanwhile, the scale of the damage and destruction caused by legalisation is evident in Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where the pool of candidates for death continues to grow and the reasons for requesting it include simply being tired of living. But there are politicians who, as part of a powerful, articulate, highly autonomous cohort, see the attractions of assisted suicide for themselves and thus become increasingly deaf to the concerns of the weak, who are much more likely to end up victims of unwanted assisted suicide in ways that the strong can never imagine will happen to them.

Let us hope that they remain in the minority, but to ensure they do will require an effort to build a culture that once more esteems every human life. The crucial vote on assisted suicide in the Scottish Parliament is likely to be in the first week of May.

John Deighan is the parliamentary officer for the Bishops Conference of Scotland


Faith Magazine