Wednesday, January 27, 2010

For Pity's Sake: Time for Assisted Thinking on Assisted Suicide

The current public trend of broad acceptance of euthanasia, as exemplified by the generally favourable reaction to Kay Gilderdale’s acquittal over the death of her daughter, Lynn, is deeply disturbing. And disturbing on a number of levels.

Euthanasia represents a fundamental change in the way we value life. Prior to this, for over a thousand years of western civilisation, we have placed huge value on life. On the very fact of being alive. As the years have gone by, we’ve protected it more and more.

But euthanasia, and the philosophical basis behind it, qualifies life. Some lives become more valuable than others. And An Spailpín Fánach would be deeply interested in finding out how decisions about which lives are no longer valuable are made, and who makes those decisions. Very interested indeed.

We do joined up thinking badly. The general reaction to Mrs Gilderdale’s decision to end her daughter’s life was that if one were in the same boat, one would do the same. And there are very few who wouldn’t. An Spailpín has not made a study of the case but, from what I do know, I believe I would have done the same myself as Mrs Gilderdale. But that doesn’t mean I would have done right.

Extreme cases make bad law, and Lynn Gilderdale’s was an extreme case. What is worrying your correspondent is that there is no bigger debate about euthanasia, and so called mercy killing or assisted suicide.

There are huge philosophical questions to be decided. None bigger. At stage do we decide, as a society, that someone’s life has peaked, and that it’s all downhill from here? At what do we decide that it’s alright for others to intervene in that downhill trip, and give someone a whoosh to journey’s end? And how do we deal with a conflict where society has decided that someone is over the hill, but the someone themselves reckons he or she is just fine, thanks, and has no interest in hearing the choir invisible for a few years’ yet?

One of the reasons why Kay Gilderdale was acquitted was the belief that Lynn Gilderdale wanted to die. Was it Lynn Gilderdale's right to make that decision? Was Lynn Gilderdale capable of making that decision? Must you be in your full mental faculties to make that decision? If you’ve been bed-ridden for seventeen years, can you have you full mental faculties?

This is not a debate that’s taking place, but an acceptance of euthanasia seems to be growing, and this is very worrying. We don’t want to make hard decisions. We want hard decisions to go away, because we want the world to be a happy place. Even though it’s often the exact opposite.

One of the great lies of our age (currently exposed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s recently published Smile or Die) is that the world is a happy place. This makes people who are miserable feel even more so, because their misery is exaggerated. And if they are that vulnerable, what will public acceptance of euthanasia do to the suicide rates?

It’s a little know fact, but you cannot commit suicide by holding your breath. Even though you think you want to die, you cannot shut the system down by force of will. You have to double cross yourself, and do yourself in by violence, by rope, river or bullet. But you cannot die without help. It’s clutching at straws, certainly, but that’s what you do when you’re on the edge. Society should provide straws for the vulnerable, not help to push them over the edge.

The leading philosophical proponent of euthanasia is Peter Singer of Princeton. Singer is also a leading advocate of animal rights. So, if I have him right, he thinks eating a burger makes you a monster but gassing Granny because she no longer knows or cares who’s President is fair enough. I guess they’re not making philosophers like they used to.

Let’s hope Peter himself always knows who’s President – he mightn’t like it some day when he doesn’t know any more, and the nurse says there, there, Peter, there, there, don’t worry, and nods at the doctor, who draws the curtains and starts patting his pockets, wondering where he left his sodium pentobarbital...

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