Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Society should assist people to live... not to die

Desmond Tutu said he reveres the sanctity of life - but not at any cost
Desmond Tutu said he reveres the sanctity of life - but not at any cost

The crass hypocrisy of Desmond Tutu and George Carey in "coming out" for assisted dying is enough to render one speechless.

Two individuals who have stalked the Earth for nearly 200 years between them arrive at the conclusion that people in suffering or elderly or ill or too expensive to keep alive or maybe just not likely to live – we never really get to any coherent definition of circumstances – should be "assisted" to die.

This is interesting. The colossal value we ascribe to our luxurious lives in advanced Western medicine now leads us to insist on legislation to compel other people to terminate our lives at our supposed request.

The usual nonsense accompanies this. Tutu doesn't like to see old people like him suffer. A London rabbi, Jonathan Romain, doesn't see anything "holy" in suffering – which is nice to know, but I don't recall that written on any prescription I got from a doctor.

Also it costs too much. Also drugs can't alleviate all pain. Also medical advances shouldn't mean that the Hippocratic oath should be taken to the lengths drugs can achieve.

In what must be the most astounding comment from Tutu – "I revere the sanctity of life, but not at any cost" – the great liberal cleric allies himself with a whole range of people he'd prefer not to be allied with, from crazed assassins drawing a bead on unpopular politicians to young men contemplating suicide to state executioners in the US.

Of course, "we know what he means". But do we? Does he? He complains that his friend Nelson Mandela was kept alive and used as fodder for political photo-calls. And that is unfortunate, if true. But is death preferable?

The truth about current hospital or hospice care is largely concealed from the public. People generally don't know what the mechanisms of "end of life" are, other than what they're confronted with against their will, by car crash, terminal illness, or the quiet passing of old age.

TV drama doesn't represent death accurately. Instead, it imagines the closing of the eyes, or dramatic death by shooting, a fall or drowning. It doesn't tend to record death by agony, or in distress, because that would be, though accurate, indescribably harrowing.

The idea that a law will be enacted which will somehow solve the killing problem for us is a fiction. It is like trying to enact a law called the "Capital Punishment But Only For Really Really Evil Persons Who Are Guilty Beyond Any Doubt Act". It's impossible.

And the casualty is not the individuals who would be executed under its auspices, most of whom will be indeed guilty. The casualty would be, in fact, the principle of the state not engaging in taking life at all; that is not its function; its energies should be aimed at the preservation of life and alleviation of suffering where possible. Anything less is insane.

Suffering, even in our advanced society, is inevitable. The idea that we as a society will be somehow "absolved" from the stain of killing by some peculiar written contract; or that legislation will be able to negotiate the huge variety of conditions, from people in comas to disabled people to those gravely wounded in war to those trapped in a burning car to those diagnosed with MS or MND, is chronically misguided and a deception.

And the idea that we should consider "suffering" a choice is equally insane. Either die now or suffer – your call.

Carey wrote: "The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering."

When was there not "needless suffering", Dr Carey? Right now, people with cancer in Northern Ireland are suffering needlessly because drugs available to Dr Carey are not available to them – any views on that, Archbishop? Either of you?

Or maybe we have to wait until you meet someone in that predicament until you decide to raise your voice? The idea that personal examples of terrible suffering mean that old philosophical certainties have collapsed is the conclusion everyone who resorts to their own personal experience arrives at. Because it's Nelson Mandela is no different to you or me.

But in what fantasy world do the bishops and rabbis live where the removal of suffering is even possible?

This is the triumph of Nice People over common sense. It is the argument of personal whim over social responsibility.

I hope I don't die in agony. I hope I don't even have a toothache. But I'm not going to kill people because they are expensive. They can take their chances like me as a human being alive on this planet that maybe we will die screaming. Though most likely not.

But I am not going to bully other people through law to assist me in killing myself by proxy, even on the word of old men in a hurry.

Thanks for your advice, Bishops, but no thanks.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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