I’ve just lost most of the sympathy I had for Debbie Purdy, the multiple sclerosis sufferer who yesterday won a landmark ruling in the House of Lords meaning that the Director of Public Prosecutions must now clarify the basis on which people who assist chronically sick people in taking their own lives will be prosecuted under English and Welsh law.
Asked in a BBC Radio Four Today programme interview this morning whether she thought a change in the law ‘in Britain’ in favour of assisted suicide in cases such as hers would lead to situations where elderly and sick people are bullied into taking their own lives in order not to be a burden on others, or where there is a financial interest on the part of those helping them to die, Ms Purdy dismissed this possibility out of hand by saying – and I paraphrase – that she didn’t think ‘British people’ today would behave in such a manner.
Oh, wake up, Ms Purdy! Of course, people will do such things if they think they can get away with it. That’s just human nature, and the ‘British’ are no better, morally, than anyone else. While I have sympathy for people suffering from chronic or terminal diseases who can’t think of any way they can die with dignity other than taking their own lives, this casual dismissal of the unintended consequences that will surely flow from liberalising the law on assisted suicide exemplifies the selfishness and moral self-righteousness of those who argue for the right for what used to be known as euthanasia: ‘our despair and right to get other people to kill us is morally more important than the unfortunate consequence that others will take their lives or be killed when they didn’t really want to, or when other options for their care could otherwise have been found’.
On top of which, Ms Purdy and the Radio Four interviewer talked continually of the legal situation in ‘Britain’ and didn’t once mention that the change in the law that might follow from yesterday’s ruling would affect England and Wales only, not ‘Britain’. The phrase ‘this country’ also passed the lips of both Ms Purdy and the interviewer to further obfuscate which country they were talking about. I suppose whether the change in the law relates to England and Wales only or Britain as a whole doesn’t affect the ethical issue; but when Ms Purdy appealed to the decency of ‘British’ people as part of her bland dismissal of the claim that people will take advantage of legalised assisted suicide to accelerate the demise of those who wish to die naturally, then I’m afraid she lost me completely. If the woman wants to change the law, then at least she could have the decency to know which country’s law she is changing.
No doubt, though, if this legal change does pass through Parliament – which Ms Purdy suggested she would like to happen – then Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will help vote it through even though none of their sick and elderly constituents will meet an untimely death as a consequence. Whereas, of course, it’s up to MSPs to change the law in Scotland; and, indeed, the MSP Margo MacDonald has been proposing a similar change there. But at least, if assisted suicide is legalised in Scotland, it will be Scottish elected representatives only who are responsible.
But then again, sick and dying English and Welsh patients are British, really, aren’t we? We’re decent people and won’t want to be a burden on our relatively underfunded NHS, compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland, that is; or on our families that might otherwise have to pay for a protracted period of social care, unlike in Scotland where it’s free. So my advice is: do the decent thing; lie back, take the lethal injection and think of the Empire.