Assisted suicide has bubbled back to the top of the pot of controversy in Britain this week after the Law Lords ruled on July 30 that the nation's assisted-suicide law must be clarified. The question at hand is, should Britons be prosecuted for going abroad to help loved ones medically end their lives, and will assisted suicide be legalized in Britain itself?
Right now, British law forbids assisted suicide. According to Britain's Suicide Act of 1961, "a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another" could be sent to prison for 14 years. The law has not prevented Britons from prematurely ending their lives. Instead, 115 determined people have traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, to receive deadly medications at the Dignitas clinic there – 23 people in just the past year. British authorities have not bothered to prosecute any of the friends or family members who have accompanied them.
Debbie Purdy, a British woman suffering from multiple sclerosis, has pushed the issue. Before going to Zurich herself, she wanted to know if her husband Omar would be prosecuted for accompanying her. She said she needed to know, because if he would not be bothered, she could allow the disease to progress further before ending her life. If he was in danger of prosecution, though, she would have to go soon while she could still make the trip on her own.
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has not chased down any helpers of the 115 Britons who have made their fatal journeys to Zurich, and there was therefore little chance that Omar would have been prosecuted. Debbie Purdy received support in her case from the organization Dignity in Dying, which promotes legalizing assisted suicide. Bryan Appleyard suggests in The Times that Purdy's real struggle was not about keeping Omar out of jail.
"No, the real fight was for the full legalisation of assisted suicide in Britain. Indeed, Purdy said she would ‘prefer to be able to have an assisted death in this country and not to have to travel,'" writes Appleyard.Britain's highest court reviewed Purdy's case and ruled on July 30 that the assisted-suicide law was simply just too vague. Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer is now under the gun to clarify the law and describe specifically which situations will be excused and which will be condemned by the British justice system. The clarification won't just affect those traveling to Zurich, though. Mr. Starmer has made sure everybody knows the guidelines will affect everybody, including those who want to end their lives in Britain itself.
That means the new guidelines could go either way. The DPP most likely does not want to go out and prosecute those hundreds of friends and relatives that have so far escaped the law because they flew to Zurich. Yet, the DPP still wants to protect the vulnerable against relatives who might be overly eager to help patients commit suicide. The government does not want Grandma pressured into ending her life, or even more frightening, to be "suicided."
The Muddy Hill
There is also concern over the "slippery slope" effect of legalizing assisted-suicide. If Mrs. Purdy can end her life early because she's suffering from MS, what about those people who suffer from some dreadful, but not terminal, disease? What about people who want to die because they are weary of dealing with terrible, daily depression? In the 1990s, the Dutch courts ruled a woman could receive the help to end her life because her two children had died and she didn't want to deal with the grief anymore. Once a society decides that the value of human life is dependant on "quality" of life, it is hard to stand firm on any ground.
Michael Smythe, head of public policy at law firm Clifford Chance LLP in London, noted that the DPP will need to be specific.
"You can imagine the public brouhaha if the guidelines permitted those who were temporarily ill or not very ill to be assisted in their premature passing without any sanctions for those assisting them," he said.Assisted-suicide advocates argue that we have far more power to keep people alive than in the past. Hearts don't just stop and people don't just die. We can resuscitate people and restart their hearts and keep them alive on ventilators. We can't hold off death forever, but we can prolong life. This, they argue, makes the question of "when to die" more confusing. Either way, that's not a good argument for assisted-suicide; a person who has to take an airplane to Zurich to take life-ending drugs is obviously not on life-support.
My Life Is Not My Own
Nigel Biggar, an Oxford theology professor, makes the argument that the issue of assisted-suicide is not just one of personal choice. Each human life has value, not just to the individual, but to society as a whole. If we tell people not to interfere with our death because it's our business alone, we deny the greater significance of our lives. Biggar says,
"The problem is that what fends off interference also generates indifference and carelessness," he said. "If my life only has the worth that I accord it, then it has no objective value; and if it has no objective value, then why should anyone else care for it?"Yet, we do care for the lives of others. We don't stand by while they drown - in water or in debt or in depression. We don't let people end their lives arbitrarily because human life has value even when the living one doesn't want to go on any longer. It's dangerous to equate the worth of a life with some subjective idea of "quality" because it denies that life itself is intrinsically valuable. That understanding is even more pronounced when we realize that God has a purpose in our lives, even when we can't see that purpose. We do not know what God is doing in the hearts and souls even of those suffering near the ends of their lives. We don't know what lives can still be touched and eternal purposes can be accomplished through the woman with MS or the man on his deathbed with bone cancer.
It is a dreadful thing to watch loved ones struggle with pain day after day and feel helpless to ease their agony. We all want to end the suffering of those we love. Yet, if we really truly believed that God loves these precious people, far more than we do, would we find the willingness to trust Him and put the situation fully into His hands? The world does not know how to do that. How can we help the world learn, unless we first learn ourselves?
"What is my strength, that I should hope? and what is mine end, that I should prolong my life?" - Job 6:11
"He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.'" - 1 Cor 12:9
Assisted Suicide: Whose Life Is It Anyway? - The Sunday Times
Government May Consider Assisted Suicide Bill - Telegraph.co.uk
Britain to Clarify Its Assisted-Suicide Law - Time
Should Assisted Suicide Be Legalised? - Sunday Herald
Dangers of Euthanasia - Koinonia House eNews