A dignified debate about death

Following the release of the Brit-comedy Three And Out, spiked hosted a lively debate at BAFTA last night on the rights and wrongs of ‘the right to die’.

In light of the controversy surrounding the release of the British movie Three And Out, last night spiked convened a panel of philosophers, commentators and activists to debate ‘The rights and wrongs of the “right to die”’ at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in central London.

The media furore over Three And Out apparently came as a bit of a shock to the filmmakers. The story of a London tube driver on the hunt for a suicidal patron to jump in front of his train, and thereby leave him with a lavish compensation claim, was originally billed as a bittersweet comedy exploring the nature of suicide and its impact on those close to the victim.

Unfortunately, or more likely fortunately if all publicity really is good publicity, suicidal patrons jumping in front of eager tube drivers gets lucratively close to the ethics of voluntary euthanasia - which in turn generates arguments and counter-arguments from both sides of the anti- and pro-euthanasia divide.

In an effort to separate the arguments from the hysteria, and to explore the issue of voluntary euthanasia in depth, a lively, intelligent, informed audience crammed into the top floor of BAFTA last night to ask if euthanasia really can be an ethical solution to the problem of painful living. It quickly became clear that this would be a debate between ‘morality’ and ‘empirical science’.

On the anti-euthanasia side, Clifford Longley, a writer for the Catholic weekly The Tablet and a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, was the first to speak. He argued that allowing voluntary assisted suicide immediately undermines the sanctity of human life more broadly: ‘The reason I won’t live and let die is because… your right to die undermines my right to life.’

Watch Catholic commentator Clifford Longford
(courtesy of Friction.tv)

Mick Hume, Times columnist and spiked’s editor-at-large, argued against legalised euthanasia from a ‘humanist, left-wing’ standpoint. He said that the campaign for legally approved euthanasia is anti-human and defeatist in essence. The fact that pressure groups such as Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) can claim 100,000 members was indicative of a creeping miserablist, downbeat culture. ‘There are far more important issues for 100,000 people to get worked up about’, he said, yet one of the big campaigns of our times is the ‘dead-end issue’ of ‘the right to die’.

On the pro-assisted dying side, Daniel Sokol, a medical ethicist at St George’s Medical School at the University of London, took the moderate position that ‘persuasion shouldn’t give in to coercion’ if euthanasia is ever legalised; people should never be cajoled, of course, to end their life. It should, for everyone, be a matter of choice. Sokol said that the research coming out of Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, has dispelled many of the anxieties surrounding legalised euthanasia. ‘These nightmare scenarios being envisaged just haven’t materialised.’

Ashley Riley, director of campaigns and communication at Dignity in Dying called for the arguments surrounding assisted dying to be based on research and evidence rather than unfounded fears and scaremongering. He cited reports showing 76 per cent of the public were in favour of a change in the law. Reports from doctors and nurses suggested similar answers.

Watch Times columnist Mick Hume
(courtesy of Friction.tv)

So far so very well-behaved. However, beckoned by the chair, Radio 4 science presenter Sue Nelson, the audience who had been sitting in polite silence proceeded to erupt; an animated and intelligent debate followed.

Bill Durodié, of the Chatham House think-tank, harangued the pro-choicers for what he described as their ‘me, me, me’ stance. He argued that death is not just about the person dying, since every individual is a product of relationships, social forces and aspirations. Dominic Lawson, the Independent columnist who is critical of ‘the right to die’, also seemed to enjoy himself, envisaging a euthanistic world where hospitals might have a resident thanatologist, obviously clad in black, to dispose of those with a fatalistic bent.

Other audience members asked if opposition to the right to die, such as that expressed by Hume and Longley, might give rise to ‘coerced living’. The panel tackled these probing and contrarian questions in an entertaining style, Hume and Riley even shouting over each other at one point. They clashed on the issue of whether euthanasia should be regulated. Hume argued that doctors have always, humanely, helped the terminally ill to die, but they did it informally in discussion with the ill person and his or her family. ‘Some things are best left unregulated’, said Hume. Riley passionately disagreed, suggesting that unregulated euthanasia would leave patients vulnerable. Without checks on doctors’ life-and-death relationships with patients, ‘the end result is Harold Shipman’, said Riley.

One of the main battles in the debate over euthanasia concerns the language used to describe it. The term ‘euthanasia’ itself has become so loaded that every member of the panel tried not to mention it. Chairperson Sue Nelson even asked Riley and Sokol to spell out what the different phrases meant: euthanasia, voluntary euthanasia, assisted dying, assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide. Hume and Longley suggested they were ‘euphemisms’ for the same thing - a defeatist attitude to life - whereas Sokol and Riley insisted that each idea was different, and that some were more morally acceptable than others.

Watch Ashley Riley from Dignity in Dying
(courtesy of Friction.tv)

The pressure groups present in the audience provided further evidence that words matter in the euthanasia debate. Hence the pro-life lobby was represented by the harsh alliteration and juxtaposition of the group Care Not Killing, while the pro-choice side could be seen in the soporific Friends at the End or Riley’s own Dignity in Dying.

One striking aspect of last night’s debate was the absence of the religious dogma which is normally so intractable from the arguments surrounding euthanasia. Longley and Hume, opposed to the right to die, cited philosophers such as John Donne and Cicero to back up their arguments about the immeasurable value and worth of human life. ‘Life cannot be measured in months, days or minutes, just as it cannot be measured in pounds or pence’, said Hume, who said we should ‘take a strong stand that life is worth living and death is not the solution to life’s problems’. Even when Sue Nelson tried to pin down this matter by asking Longley if he thought euthanasia was a ‘sin’, he said in reply: ‘I have my own morality but I would not wish to impose it on you.’

Indeed, in place of the old-style religious debate about euthanasia - where Christians oppose it and secularists are presumed to support it - last night’s discussion showed that much of the contemporary debate on the right to die is a clash between morality and science. Where Riley and Sokol presented scientific evidence to show that voluntary euthanasia is supported by the public and does not lead to doctors going wild and killing their patients, Longley and Hume argued that there is more to human life than that which can be measured by a poll or a graph. One audience member asked: ‘Even if 90 per cent of people supported voluntary euthanasia, would that make it right?’

Henry Williams is working as an intern at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Back reviewed Three And Out. Kevin Yuill felt the case of Colin Norris indicated the devaluation of old people’s lives. Elsewhere, he said no thanks to the ‘right to die’ and argued that those supporting euthanasia gave cultural approval to suicide. Dr Margaret Branthwaite made the case for legalising assisted dying. Frank Furedi urged us to challenge the culture of death, while Brendan O’Neill peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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