Assisted Dying, is a tricky issue to discuss, particularly with anyone of a religious persuasion. It is easy to forget that in the UK at least, it is only since 1961 that any form of ‘suicide’ has not been a crime. Which sounds completely daft, but it was certainly not unknown for people who attempted suicide, and failed, to be prosecuted for the attempt, and suicide had implications for the property of the deceased, which in theory at least reverted to the crown. There were also implications for the burial of the deceased, consecrated ground was to put it bluntly not an option, and a sizable proportion of the myths associated with Vampires are in part due to the treatment of the bodies of those who took their own lives. Whilst British law is notoriously slow to change, this situation was not exclusive to Britain, and rested largely on Christian teachings derived from St. Augustine, that life was a gift from god and to take your own was to disrespectful to the creator, and therefore a sin.
It is clear from the brief discussion above, that the issue of planning your own death, in any form is tangled up with religious ideas, and it was the waning of religious belief which ultimately influenced changes in the law in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Increasingly throughout the western world, legal matters informed and influenced by religious ideas have changed as the secular influence on society and subsequently it’s laws has grown.
Now as a agnostic/atheist, prone to anthropomorphise natural forces as more demonstrable god like influences on human lives than some old bearded man in heaven, you might think I was wholly supportive of the secular influence on law and legislation. (What do you mean how can I be an agnostic/atheist?) I however don’t think the situation is quite so simple. For thousands of years religions of all kinds and hues, have been repositories for morals values and mores, and it is open to question what secular society has replaced those ideas enshrined (semi deliberate pun) in religions, with. (Your going to keep nagging at that agnostic/atheist thing aren’t you)
Part of the problem of course is that society has become either multicultural, or a cross-fertilised culture depending on your point of view, I prefer the latter. Most people interpret this to mean that different nationalities and religious values co exist alongside each other. (The agnostic/atheist thing is still bugging you isn’t it) Whilst this is true, I think it is also that not only are they alongside each other they are also intertwined. And just to make it more complicated other philosophies which don’t neatly fit into a religious or national identity also overlap, influence and are influenced by the more traditional systems.
OK I give in I’ll explain the agnostic/atheist thing, on the whole I am atheistic I don’t really believe there is a god, or even many gods, or a creator, but I also know that philosophically speaking I can’t prove conclusively that anything but myself exists. This is the Cogito ergo et sum, I think therefore I am, thing, or put another way I doubt everything, but I, the doubter must exist, or else who would be doing the doubting. Pretty Esoteric stuff I know. Essentially I doubt everything including my atheism, which essentially means I don’t believe in a god, but would be willing to change my mind in the face of new persuasive evidence, but reserve the right to be uncertain about her/his/its, nature if she/he/it did exist. Satisfied?
Ok I’m being a little flippant, but essentially this is what I believe, and an agnostic/atheist, is the nearest term I can come up with to describe it. For the majority of people the moral foundation of modern life rests on choice. The moral ideals of western society rest on, democratic choice, economic choice, religious choice, consumer choice, most legal rights rest on individual choice. To my mind there is not often enough discussion of responsibility in the context of the right to choose, but there seems to be very little disagreement that the right to make an informed choice is an absolutely fundamental human right.
The tricky bit of course is the ‘informed’ bit. This is often the pivotal point on which the arguments of those who oppose assisted dying rest. They are very quick to point out that people might be manipulated into making an uninformed choice, that unscrupulous people would take advantage of the vulnerable for their own gain. This is a valid point, and the best rebuttal so far advanced has been that of Sir Terry Pratchett, a tribunal to judge the soundness of mind and capacity to make an informed decision of any individual choosing a pathway to assisted death.
I am not certain I can explain exactly why, but this has reminded me of a piece of dialogue from the Matrix Reloaded,
The Oracle: We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.
Neo: Are you saying I have to choose whether Trinity lives or dies?
The Oracle: No, you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.
Neo: No. I can’t do that. I won’t.
The Oracle: Well, you have to.
The Oracle: Because you’re the One.
My best explanation is that for me, on the question of assisted dying, I have already made my choice, should something confront me that I would rather not live through, Alzheimer’s is a very good example, I will die before I lose the opportunity to make the choice. Unlike Neo in the scene above, I understand it, Neo doesn’t realise that the Oracle knows he has already chosen to save Trinity, because he Loves her, Neo believes the Oracle thinks he has decided not to save her, in order to save Zion.
I know I have made the choice and I know it is an informed choice, because I understand what Kind of death I am prepared to endure, and what I am willing to inflict on those I love. Physical Disability does not particularly concern me, and nor does physical pain particularly, not that I would refuse painkillers to combat it, and I am willing to accept that at some point it might overwhelm me. But it is the ability to function in a way which is truly me that concerns me. If I felt I was to lose myself, either as my memory and personality slipped away as a result of an illness like Alzheimer’s or because I could no longer feel myself because of pain or even painkillers that would be time.
I know I made this choice a long time ago, because someone close to me also made it, partly because after being struck with meningitis in early adult hood and having made a ‘good enough’ recovery, after four years of struggle, raising a family living a good life for 20 years and then being taken ill again, they were unwilling to face a second long recovery from a serious illness. I also know they did not want to inflict that recovery on those close to them. (bad tempered bloody-mindedness, might be a survival trait but it’s hell to live with) Now this was not assisted dying, this was a choice they had made that resulted in a ‘do not resuscitate’ decision, that had to be made by this persons spouse, when faced with the doctors prognosis that recovery was unlikely. The spouses comment to me at the time was that the dying person would ‘never have forgiven them.’ if they brought them back from the brink.
It was a terrible, awful, moment, but it was also a moment that was fundamentally filled with the most profound love, this was a choice to let go, to honour someone’s wishes, because it was their wish, not because it was moral, immoral or amoral any other reason, but because it was a loving, and loved persons absolutely certain wish.
If I suspect that a long illness of mine would inflict years of thankless caring on the people closest to me, watching a person that they love deeply die a little piece at a time, I would spare them that, it would be my gift to them.
As I write I find I am beginning to boil with anger that there are people who fail to see that that particular choice is mine, mine alone, an aspect of my personal power to make the world a better place for those I love, and none of their blasted business.
I’m sorry if it seems melodramatic but can’t write about this any more right now.