Thursday 11 December 2008

Assisted Suicide and the Law

Statutes are crude, basic means of laying out the ground and protecting people’s basic rights. The ways they are interpreted and applied is where the action is. Remember the dangerous dogs act? It was going to stop dogs killing children, a laudable plan, but proved almost impossible to apply in practice. The devil is in the detail. Hard cases make bad laws, and one person's sensible relief is another's death warrant.

To know that in principle the law, whilst not criminalising suicide, protects life pretty absolutely, is surely no bad thing. As long as it is applied with compassion, it is surely better to know you will have to justify, formally and case-by-case, taking a life, rather than saving it. Death is the exception not the norm.

My mother suffered from dementia, which came with extended episodes of depression, over four very difficult years before her death in 1994. We did what I imagine any family would do — sold her house, and used the money to pay for the very best care for her; which towards the end was pretty total. Yet there were, even late on, some moments of comparative lucidity and even flashes of joy. Although in her depression she sometimes asked insistently to be put down, it helped and protected everyone to know that this was not really an option. Her condition was sometimes extremely challenging for her, her carers, and the family, along with me and my power of attorney. To add to the mix a legal right to assisted suicide would have made it a complete and utter bloody nightmare. And imagine what legislation must also cover, circumstances where there was less goodwill in the family, with several hundred thousand pounds riding on a decision to terminate a.s.a.p. More tea, Dr Shipman?

The fact that this is so extraordinarily complicated an area in which to legislate shouldn’t make it entirely impossible, but it involves thin ice, which it wouldn’t be wise to skate over. This is big life and death stuff, which has to stand up and protect the weak in millions of circumstances far less extreme and unusual than those on which the media is majoring just now. We need to pick our rut carefully. We may be in it for a long time.


Doug said...

Thank you, Alan.

Not least for your ability to put a point over without sounding like a bishop!

Anonymous said...

Well said. We as society have to learn to help the physically helpless feel valuable. Perhaps the truth is that that isn't just how they feel - it's an accurate perception of how society assesses them. We need to combat that.

This assisted suicide movement seems counter-productive in achieving this end. (I was blogging on this myself two days ago).

I hope you bishoppy types get the chance to be heard.

Anonymous said...

i suffered a brain injury a few years ago, and even though i am 99.8% recovered at this point, i still wish i had had the option to end my life when i was still in the hospital. i know that peoples' emotions would recover over time, but that remaining .2% that i haven't recovered yet is the part of me that made me complete, and i feel as though it is torture to know that i will probably never recover it.

just so you know, there's another side to your story about your mother.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all, especially Anon for telling your story about this. How you turn these complicated and contradictory feelings into firm protective legislation, let alone establish the levels of and protocols around consent, isn't easy to see.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read. Keep up the good work.

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