Discussing euthanasia in the House of Lords is only the start

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By Justine Chamberlain

A few days ago the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, reopened the public debate on euthanasia or assisted dying. He’s in support of it being an option, and being a Christian leader, the papers hit upon this as a new part of the debate: if top Christians, who have led the opposition to euthanasia in this country can be in favour, does that shift public mentality?

Of course, there are plenty of other Christians still against euthanasia. Archbishop Welby describes the possibility of legalising assisted dying as “mistaken and dangerous”. The Christian perspective is important, in that there are a large number of Christians in this country and they have bishops in the House of Lords who will be part of the serious end of the debate. The debate, however, is much more important than what a handful of people think, but a question of protection, rights and criminalisation of loved ones – and these effect everyone.

The Assisted Dying Bill will be debated in the House of Lords this Friday and is described as “A Bill to enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their required with specified assistance to end their own life; and for connected purposes” (Parliament UK).

The arguments for and against assisted dying have been going back and forth for many years now. Those in favour of assisted dying cite examples where people have died in agony, where loved ones have brought about the death and been sent to prison for it, and doctors too, who have taken pity on their patients. Those against are fearful of the law change leading to forced deaths to the benefit of those living – such as for inheritance reasons, the sanctity of life, and ending someone’s life by mistake when they might have recovered. There are likely more points that can and will be debated in the House of Lords and queues for buses.

HandsMany people talk about euthanasia being a fancy word for suicide. Suicide is often brought about because of a different kind of illness that doesn’t cause physical pain but is brutal none-the-less. Depression is not likely to be one of the reasons for assisted dying because it is rightly classed as an illness, and there is treatment available. Since 1961, in the UK suicide is not a crime, but the difference between suicide and euthanasia is clear: one is performed by oneself, one is performed by another. However, people who are physically ill and largely restricted from movement would be reliant on another for their means suicide, even if they manage to perform the act themselves.

It is difficult to imagine watching the person you love most dying in agony, and it seems natural to want to help them end their lives. Some people are able to travel abroad to help their loved ones die in places such as Dignitas, a Swiss company who have reportedly helped more than a thousand people end their lives. There are other parts of the world people can attend to end their lives, but this is all an expensive end to ones life, and there are still legal implications (also, insurance and pension difficulties). On the other hand, how would other members of the dead person’s family react- would they have been so sure? If a doctor was in agreement, would that doctor be struck off? How can everyone possibly be happy with a decision to purposely end someone else’s life?

Perhaps there should be a debate around class and wealth, where people who can afford to, can travel abroad for their end of life decisions. If a successful solicitor wishes to die, he/she can head for Zurich and pay Dignitas’s fees. If a labourer wishes to die, he/she must rely on family, criminalising them in the process – or chose to prolong a painful death.

Article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 states that “(1) Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which the penalty is provided by law.” Such a broad statement is meant to protect all of us, but in the end is hindering another question. Who has the right to die? Here, we enter a philosophical debate – if my life is my own, therefore so is my death. Life and death are fundamental to who we are and if the decision of one or the other is taken away, are we just the property of the state? If the state says that I cannot own my own end of life decision, then they have taken away my right to death – a right that I don’t have protected, but is quintessentially mine? 

The debate in the House of Lords only touches on what is to be legal in this country, but perhaps it is also time to consider whether we should be adding the right of death to the Human Rights Act. The question of death has been among the philosophers and poets for thousands of years, but when it is debated in our Parliament as a right, it is time for everyone to consider who we think gets to decide on our own deaths.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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