“Our arrival on this earth is not within our power to initiate. Our departure is our concern and if it needs to be hastened it is we who should have the right to orchestrate it.”
Once again I am handing Return to Paradox over to an item written by Lionel Strange who recently submitted Why so few atheists? As I said at that time, Lionel is a retired senior public servant whom I have known well and deeply respected for more than 50 years and who was, in a previous era, a science advisor in the Science Secretariat of the Privy Council Office (not to be confused with the Prime Minister’s Office.) More apropos to today’s subject is the fact that he is a nonagenarian and in my opinion no one has a better right to express a view on the right to assisted suicide than someone who has embarked upon his personal tenth decade.
THE RIGHT TO ASSISTED SUICIDE
by Lionel Strange*
The present debate in the news media regarding the right to assisted suicide is long overdue and should be taking place in parliament. It is a most complex subject and deserves very serious consideration. I will attempt here to bring into focus the various issues involved.
A cursory survey of the obituary columns in any newspaper will show you that we are rapidly increasing the age at which we die. New discoveries in medicine have allowed us to overcome the old-time killers such as pneumonia. A variety of replacement techniques for hearts, lungs and other body parts have allowed us to soldier on for many more years. However there has not been an equivalent advance in prolonging our mental capabilities and we are in serious danger of producing large numbers of aged mental cripples. Furthermore, because of the general physical decay that must inevitably occur as we age, we are more than likely to end our lives in some very unpleasant physical or mental discomfort.
From a personal point of view this situation must worry us. From a government point of view it is an horrendous financial problem. Medicare already consumes an inordinate proportion of the budget. It is against this background that I want to consider the issue of assisted suicide.
Why would anyone want to voluntarily end their lives? I will try to bring this into focus by positing a spectrum.
At one end would be someone mentally in top condition, capable of enjoying any and all the pleasures of intellectual life, financially well established, surrounded by family and friends, but encountering a painful and incurable disease that makes it impossible to take part in any of the pleasurable activities that his mental abilities would enable. At the other end of the spectrum I would place the individual whose physical attributes are in good shape but who’s mind is severely and incurably disabled. Between these two extremes are a myriad situations that could lead to the desire to put an end to one’s existence.
What harm can one person’s self imposed death impart to anyone else? Again, there is a spectrum of situations. At one end the case of a single unattached person with no responsibilities to anyone else. At the other, the husband or wife responsible in all respects for the well-being of a family.
There is also, however, a separate aspect to this issue. It is the concept, primarily based on religion, that life is somehow sacred and should be endured regardless of circumstance until ended by natural cause.
Finally there is the position of the medical fraternity. They swear an oath to do no harm. Does assisting in the death of someone who wants death constitute harm?
Broadly speaking, those are the factors that must constitute any debate about the right to assisted suicide.
I personally believe that every individual has the right to end their lives if they so wish, but should, to the extent possible and reasonable, try to minimize the distress caused to those who are close to them.
I will put forward my thoughts on how such freedom could be achieved without danger to society as a whole.
Suicide, per se, is not a criminal act. Assisting a person to commit suicide is. Many suicides come about because of circumstances such as bereavement, poverty, loneliness, uncontrolled drug use and sheer desperation at inability to make life worth while. These suicides are often preventable if we , as a society, are prepared to take the necessary, but also expensive, measures to help and support those of us who are in need. The method of achieving death in theses cases is presumably one that is available to the victim without the need of assistance.
This group to which I have just referred is not the problem that is central to this essay. It is part of the general mass of social problems that all levels of government face and which have, historically, been alleviated step by step over the ages. The issue here is whether it should be legal for anyone wishing to end their lives to have the benefit of assistance — usually medical — in achieving that aim.
The position of the medical profession is of primary importance. As the situation now stands it is generally understood that there are numerous instances where doctors have quietly complied with a patient’s desire to call it a day or, in the event that the patient is unable to communicate, have acceded to the wishes of close family. They may also be motivated by the realization that they can no longer achieve any improvement in the patient’s condition and that continuation of life support is prohibitively expensive, labour intensive and wasteful of our already overstretched medical resources. Very recently a senior member of the medical profession has gone on record in support of the doctor’s right to provide a comfortable demise when he deems it appropriate.
I therefor suggest that the first and most important step in solving this issue is to legalize the right of a registered physician to assist in the termination of a patient who wishes for such action and is in circumstances that in the physician’s opinion make such action reasonable. This should not compel any doctor to take such action but simply make it legal do so.
I turn now to the issue of the sanctity of life. This, of course, is closely related to the the whole argument about abortion, but I have enough difficulty getting my thoughts clear regarding the end of life without trying to cope with the problems related to it’s beginning.
It is my opinion that it is Living that should be of concern and protected, not Life. Our aim should be to live a life that is good for us and for those with whom we come in contact. We may or may not achieve this, but we are entitled to our existence and the state has a system of laws, regulations and protective measures that are designed to ensure that we have a reasonable chance of living a worthwhile life. If, however, we find ourselves in a situation where we have no pleasure in our existence, and have become a burden on our family and perhaps also on the state, there is no valid reason why we should be forced to continue. We should be entitled to all the help available to us if we want to hang on. But if we should decide to go, our departure will incur sadness in those close to us but will simply be part of the overall flow of mankind and all forms of life on this planet.
If we accept the reasoning that I have so far put forward, we need first and foremost to establish who has the legal right to assist someone to end their life. In my view this right should only apply to a registered physician. I would expect that once the risk of legal consequences has been removed, the majority of the medical profession will be strongly in favour of the right to practice openly what many have had to perform behind closed doors.
As with any attempt to orchestrate legal aspects of human behaviour, the devil is in the details. It is not hard to envisage difficult situations such as when a terminally ill person asks his doctor to end his life but his family refuse to agree and threaten to take legal action. There will be cases where the patient is mentally or physically incapable of lucid communication. Many more problems will arise. Nevertheless I still contend that we have the right to terminate our existence if we want to, and in situations where we are under the care of the medical profession we should , if we wish, be permitted to ask them to assist us in closing the book.
Our arrival on this earth is not within our power to initiate. Our departure is our concern and if it needs to be hastened it is we who should have the right to orchestrate it.
*The Right to Assisted Suicide
Copyright © Lionel Strange, 2013