Polly Toynbee devotes her latest column to the issue of “assisted suicide”. She is strongly in favour of this, with the fervour of one who has (it should be noted) watched her mother die an excruciating death, and who clearly believes that assisted suicide would have been a better and kinder option. Even though I disagree strongly with her arguments, I have to acknowledge I have not yet been through anything like that kind of experience.
For Toynbee, the battle lines are clearly drawn. On the one side, there are “the religious”, bullying society into forcing people to die “excruciating physical and mental torture on people who want to die”. On the other, there are those campaigning for “civilised laws” in which the terminally ill are able “to ask their doctor for a kindly fatal injection”.
And as she says at the start of the article, victory for her side of the argument seems inevitable:
This battle will be won, make no mistake. It will be won before my generation, the baby boomers, go to our graves, just as we made sure no one could discriminate against us in middle age.
With the moment of victory at hand, the gloves can finally come off. No longer will palliative care be paid more than lip-service as an alternative to the “kindly fatal injection”. To be sure, Toynbee does indeed pay it the appropriate lip-service:
Palliative care is a wonderful thing, easing many people’s last months with the skill of this relatively new specialism.
However, her true attitude is revealed in the following sentences:
But it is a profession dominated by the religious, with a Mother Teresa attitude towards life: only God ordains birth and death. It has led to a conspiracy of silence about the many miserable deaths they cannot help enough; they mislead people into imagining that morphine, well administered, can keep everyone calm in a cloud of peace.
In other words, palliative care is a religious enterprise aimed at forcing people to stay alive, and misleading the public as to the nature and outcome of their work. Hard to see how the hospice movement can continue to grow if that sort of attitude towards its work becomes more widely accepted; if it is seen as a religiously-motivated conspiracy to cruelly withhold the “kindly fatal injection” from those approaching death or facing a life of incapacity.
This is an issue where I feel overwhelmed by powerlessness and despair whenever I contemplate it, because I have no doubt that Toynbee is right: that her generation, having redefined (to its own short-term advantage) every other stage of life, will succeed in redefining the boundary between life and death in the same way; and leave the rest of us to deal with the consequences later.
Part of the problem is the lack of traction for “non-religious” arguments against assisted suicide. The knock-down argument for the pro-euthanasia lobby is, “No-one’s forcing you to kill yourself in those circumstances; this is about individual freedom of choice. If your religious views compel you to live through agony, fine – but don’t force other people to do that when they don’t share your beliefs.”
But the fact is that we are moving inexorably towards a situation in which society’s attitudes towards life and death are going to be irreversibly altered. In which it is taken for granted that you live for so long as you have a certain basic level of health and capacity, and once you lose these you turn to the doctor and her/his “kindly fatal injection”. Any other option will come to be seen as quixotic, even selfish – just as the “kindly” option of aborting disabled children results in those who choose not to do so being condemned in some quarters for their selfishness.
That always has to be the basis of a “secular” argument against euthanasia: that, in the end, “choice” for the few will become compulsion for the many. But that is a relatively complex argument, and one that can be wafted away with a few mumbled words about maintaining “all the necessary safeguards”; while a combination of “freedom of choice” and sympathetic media portrayal of terminally-ill “right to die” campaigners sweeps all before it.
However, in the end I find it difficult to argue on this issue (not least because of my lack of direct experience as noted above). There’s not much I can do other than cry “Lord, have mercy!”
So, another appeal for assistance: what do people see as the best arguments against euthanasia, in particular arguments that are likely to be persuasive for those who have a largely secular worldview?