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29 August 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

A matter of life and death
Those who favour abortion rights should oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide.

by Kevin Yuill

The case of Dianne Pretty has again brought the issue of assisted suicide into the public arena.

Pretty, from Luton, Bedfordshire in the UK - who suffers from the incurable degenerative disorder motor neurone disease - will file papers at the High Court in London arguing that her quality of life is so low that she has the right under human rights legislation to choose to die. Specifically, she wishes to ensure that her husband Brian will not be prosecuted if he helps her commit suicide.

Pretty's case is a heart-wrenching story of the suffering of one family. But it has also become yet another salvo in the war between those who want to change the law that currently prohibits assisting suicides, and those who resist a change in the law. Those in favour of changing the law appear to have the upper hand at the moment.

In 2000, Holland became the first country to allow assisted suicide (in the USA, assisted suicide is only legal in the state of Oregon). Belgium, Switzerland and Spain are considering laws to validate living wills. A poll taken five years ago found that 82 percent of the British public agreed with euthanasia. Veteran broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in Devizes, Wiltshire in the 2001 general election, winning two percent of the vote.

As the debate goes on, many who support legalising assisted suicide have drawn parallels with the issue of abortion. For example, it was reported in June 2001 that an Australian doctor was planning to take advantage of the new law in Holland by buying a Dutch-registered ship and setting up a floating euthanasia clinic, mirroring the publicity stunt by Women on Waves, who sailed from Holland to Dublin in what was billed as a floating abortion clinic.

Though medical practitioners and disabled rights groups also oppose a change in the law, the most visible groups are the same absolutist pro-life groups that oppose abortion. The opposition of this vocal minority to the liberalisation of suicide law brings many liberals into the opposite camp. ('By their enemies shall ye know them….')

Pro-life groups certainly use every opportunity to link the issues. BBC Online carries an article by Mike Willis, chairman of the Pro-Life Alliance, as representative of the opposition to assisted suicide. He begins by stating that '[t]he drive for legalised euthanasia shares common roots with the legalisation of abortion in 1967. Promoters of these practices take a utilitarian view of human life rather than viewing all human life as uniquely created and deserving of absolute respect'. Towards the end of the article, he froths 'we have seen the torrent of death in Holland' (have we?), and finishes with the dramatic, '[t]he elderly will go the same way as the unborn - unwanted, useless bread gobblers - but who will be next?'.

In fact, the issues of abortion and euthanasia are entirely different, and those with liberal views on abortion should think hard before automatically supporting the liberalisation of laws governing euthanasia.

For a start, abortion addresses a real demand. Without the right to abortion, huge numbers of women would be saddled with children they did not want. In Britain, over 150,000 women per year have abortions and an estimated three million have taken place since 1973. By contrast, in terms of euthanasia, the 'torrent of death' in Holland amounts to 4000 per year, a figure not expected to change after legalisation.

Whereas abortion can give hope to a woman, assisted suicide is the epitome of hopelessness
Only two to three percent of terminally ill patients in Holland opt for assisted suicide. Those involved with the Hospice movement - who also oppose legalisation of assisted suicide - protest that it is possible to alleviate physical pain with modern drugs, and point out that no study to date in any country has shown that pain plays a major role in requests for assisted suicide. Depression - not pain - is the real reason for assisted suicides. Ironically, even prominent terminally ill campaigners for assisted suicide, such as former acid-guru Dr Timothy Leary in the USA, and Noel Early and Annie Linsell in the UK, backed out of taking their own lives.

There is a fundamental difference in the demands of those campaigning about abortion law, and those campaigning for legalisation of assisted suicide. Abortion is about life: valuing the life of a woman over the potential life of a fetus, and enabling that woman greater choice over her future. Assisted suicide is about death, and the negation of any future.

Whereas abortion can give hope to a woman, perhaps freeing her to pursue a career, assisted suicide is the epitome of hopelessness. Whatever the strange, quasi-religious arguments of the campaigners for legal assisted suicide ('Assurance of a humane death enhances the celebration of life' reads the by-line of an organisation called Compassion in Dying), death is the end of hope. The campaign for assisted suicide elevates a defeatist, 'opt-out' culture to the level of a strategy for coping with future problems.

The call for abortion on request is about freedom: a woman's freedom to determine what is best for her, without veto by the state. As the law currently stands, it is the doctors who make that decision on the woman's behalf. The campaign for assisted suicide is the opposite demand: the 'right to die' is really the right to die at any time and to be assisted in doing so, thereby giving the state the extraordinary ability to sanction killing people 'for their own good'.

Suicide is, after all, legal. Should anybody be really determined to end it all, they could nearly always, with a little forward planning, do so. Certainly, each one of the American assisted suicide campaigner Dr Jack Kevorkian's 'patients' had the physical means to eventuate their own deaths at the time that they died. Calls for the 'right to die' are ultimately pleas for recognition of despondency and depression as incurable diseases. Moreover, they would force doctors into the process (no wonder that most doctors oppose its legalisation).

In some ways, anti-abortion and pro-assisted suicide groups have in common a tendency to redefine what human life is, and to reduce its worth. By contrasting the rights of a potential life to an actual life, anti-abortion activists risk reducing human life to its lowest common biological denominator. Similarly, assisted suicide activists would force a definition of 'quality of life'. As disability activists argue, to define a life afflicted with disease as worth less than a healthy one is wrong.

In truth, no line can be drawn between a terminally ill patient's request and a healthy 19-year-old's request for suicide. Both might change their minds. Can anybody really say that the 19-year-old's request is less valid or that theirs is worth more? Would differential treatment in law apply in murder cases? Legalisation of assisted suicide would unquestionably legitimise the destruction of existing members of our society, real lives, for no better reason than that they are wretched.

A society that presents suicide as an option disseminates hopelessness and fear of the future. Those who are really 'pro-life' should support abortion rights and oppose the campaign for assisted suicide.

Read on:

'Disability cleansing' - or a reasonable choice?, by Ann Furedi

Voluntary euthanasia: a deadbeat solution?, by Kevin Yuill

Suffocating hope, by Kevin Yuill

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