Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Dying Isn't a Right. It's an Obligation

The Marie Fleming case has got blanket coverage in the media in recent months, but last week saw a particular peak after the Supreme Court turned down her application. Saturday’s Irish Times carried two separate stories, one an interview with Marie Fleming’s daughter and the other with her partner, decrying the Supreme Court judgment. “The State spared no resource in denying Marie a dignified death,” is the headline on the interview with Tom Curran, Marie Fleming’s partner.

That is one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is to say the State spared no resource in protecting the rights of its citizens, which is exactly what the State should be doing.

All this is very tough on Marie Fleming, of course. She’s miserable and in pain and will be until she dies. Nobody disputes that, and if death came to her tomorrow, while her friends would grieve and mourn, no-one would wish it hadn’t come later. But whenever death does come, Marie Fleming will die. That is certain. It’s impossible to deny someone the right to die, because dying isn’t a right. It’s an obligation. There’s a difference.

A right is something you can choose not to exercise. For Marie Fleming to be denied the right to die is impossible. We all going to die. Even if the State wanted to deny Marie Fleming that “right”, it couldn’t. The single fundamental, undeniable truth about life is that it ends.

What the Marie Fleming case is about is whether or not someone has the right to decide how, when and where they’re going to die, and that’s a completely different thing. It doesn’t fit a headline as neatly as “right to die,” of course, and neither does it give the commentariat a chance to show the endless depths of its compassion. But as the question of whether or not a person has the right to choose the circumstances of their own death is the issue, let’s look at it for a while.

There are two points at issue here. The first is whether or not someone should decide when his or her own life ends, rather than let nature take its inevitable course. If you accept that notion – and it’s a big if – the next question is then to decide on what basis that decision is made.

If you are of the opinion that a person should be able to decide how, when and why his or her life should end, that means you are in favour of suicide as a practice. The ancient Romans and Greeks had no issue with it, the Japanese – it’s far from unprecedented.

But you’re opening a profound can of worms when you go down that route. You are saying that there are some pains in the world that are worse than the pain of death, than the pain of not being alive any more. You are reducing the taboo on suicide by making it acceptable in some cases, which will then become more and more cases as the taboo and stigma wears off. And this isn’t a good thing.

That there is nothing so bad in this world that you should leave it by doing violence unto yourself is, or should be, a fundamental truth. That is hard luck on those in similar predicaments to Marie Fleming, but the greater good is very much more important.

Besides. If society does accept that notion that there are things in the world that cannot be borne and that self-destruction is a better alternative to that pain, it is then faced with the thorny problem of how to decide what those things that cannot be borne are.

And this is even more dangerous that an acceptance of suicide because what it does is quantify the right to life. The right to life is currently an absolute – the life of the Taoiseach or President is as important as the life of the homeless person who slept rough in the doorways of Georgian Dublin last night and will again tonight. The quality of their lives are completely different of course, but they have an equal right to life under the law.

Legislation that would change that right means that just being human and alive will no longer be enough. Your life will have to have a certain quality, judged against a certain series of parameters. If your life dips below this quality, it will be the inevitable judgment of society that it’s time you were shuffling off and not be lingering, depressing your healthy and well fellow citizens.

Advocates of euthanasia would be (rightly) horrified at this, and argue that the choosing of when, where and how to die is entirely a private matter. But that’s not true. If that were true, there would be no such thing as society.

But there is such a thing a society, and there are rules about how a person can or can’t act in society, rules that exist for the protection of the society in general to the sometime inconvenience of the individual. Besides; it’s no longer a private matter if you are no longer capable of suicide and need assistance, which is where we came in with the Marie Fleming case in the first place.

It’s a very complex issue. Philosophical progress on the nature of what it is to be human has not kept pace with scientific progress. We have advanced scientifically while regressing philosophically – ours is an age that treasures youth, even though we now live longer than ever, and the longer we live the further away youth, our culture’s utmost treasure, gets from us.

We now have people living longer and longer in an age for which only being young matters. There is no great sign of joined-up thinking there, but a bridge will have to built, and by smarter people than your correspondent.

It won’t happen in time for Marie Fleming, and that’s tough. But it would be tougher on everyone if the right to life were put on a sliding scale because of misplaced compassion in a debate that is much more complex than is being portrayed in the media.

FOCAL SCOIR: I’ve been talking about suicide and I am all too fully aware of what a problem it is in Ireland at the moment. I would sooner sound precious than be irresponsible so here goes: If you’re not feeling great, the Samaritans’ number is 1850 60 60 90, and the website is http://www.samaritans.org. Call them, even if it’s only to talk about football. Sometimes, five minutes can be all it takes for clouds to break and things to look better. Nobody will think you’ll stupid – wouldn’t they much prefer to chat with someone thoughtful like yourself than do regular office stuff, or listen to a lot of yak from the HR department? You’ll be doing them a favour when you call, if anything. Let the black dog go chase parked cars. Make the call.