How did the ‘right to die’ become the liveliest cause?

Some thoughts on what the assisted suicide debate tells us about our political life and times – and what Leon Trotsky might have made of it all.

There are many questions being hotly debated today about the need for a new law on assisted suicide, the ethics of legalised euthanasia and the rights and wrongs of the ‘right to die’. Situate this debate in a wider context, however, and some other questions occur.

How on earth did the fight for the ‘right to die’ become one of the most dynamic campaign issues in British political life? What does it say about our society that many people seem more moved by and engaged with the demand for a ‘good death’ than any political movement for a better life? How have we reached the point where the great uplifting causes of freedom and progress are effectively off the agenda, while the depressing ‘cause’ of the freedom to die as we wish takes centre stage – a point where the personal wish to end it all can be elevated into a major political goal?

Debbie Purdy is the British woman with multiple sclerosis who has become the public face of the right to die campaign, as she fights her way through the legal system trying to ensure that her husband will not be prosecuted if he helps her commit suicide. Last week she succeeded in getting the UK director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to issue new guidelines on when and when not to prosecute those assisting with suicide. She has vowed to fight on for a new law to make assisted suicide entirely legal.

In another life, back in the 1980s, Debbie Purdy was a different sort of political activist, involved in campaigns against racist violence and for women’s rights. When I see her interviewed in the media these days it is clear that, despite her fading health, she retains the same fire and fighting spirit that she had back then. She has transferred that political passion into her personal battles surrounding the law and her illness.

It is of course understandable and indeed admirable that Purdy herself should now use her energy and spirit in this way, even for many of us who do not support the demand to enshrine the right to die in law (see Ray Gosling and the problem with euthanasia, by Brendan O’Neill). It is far harder to justify why so many others with no direct involvement – including many young people – should now see the right to die as such a pressing political issue, as reflected in all of the polls, websites and media coverage it generates. Moreover, the demand to be able to help a loved one end their life with impunity is widely seen as a big liberal or radical cause, on which to take a stand against the staid establishment types, such as archbishops and Gordon Brown, who oppose it.

Why? It is not, after all, as if these issues directly affect most people. Even pro-euthanasia campaigns are keen to emphasise that a legalised form of assisted suicide would only apply to a relative handful of cases each year. And there are no armies of innocent relatives unjustly locked up in the UK for assisting suicides. For example, more than a hundred Britons have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives at the dubious Dignitas clinic, including some who were not terminally ill or disabled. No relative has been prosecuted for helping them get there.

Two factors help to explain how the right to die has now become such a cause célèbre for so many. One is the lowering of horizons in our society. Ours is an age when politicians can no longer even pay lip service to the ideal of the Good Society, and fewer people really seem to believe that the future will be better than the present. The great causes of liberty and social progress that once moved generations are now widely deemed to be outdated dreams. It is against such a demoralised background that the aspiration for a better life can be reduced to the wish for a ‘good death’, with suicide as a solution to life’s problems.

This lowering of horizons is underlined by our society’s loss of faith – not in God, but in humanity. The failure of the great political projects of the past, both on the right and the left, has helped to undermine belief in the human capacity to transcend the limitations of our lives and make our own history. Instead there is often a palpable sense of mistrust of other people and even misanthropy on both sides of the debate about euthanasia today, with on one side the likes of Martin Amis suggesting that we need to cull the useless elderly and on the other some ‘pro-life’ activists implying that there are many Dr Harold Shipmans out there waiting for the legal green light to finish off their infirm patients.

The other, related, factor that has helped bring this situation about is the elevation of the private and the personal over the public or the Political with a capital P. As the scope of political debate diminishes, the old radical feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ has come to shape many contemporary debates. Once that was supposed to be about putting women’s personal experiences up on the political table. Now it is more about reducing public life and political debate to the level of personal problems.

Hence a question such as how and when a terminally ill person might end their life, which would once have been seen as a deeply personal matter involving the individual, their family and medical professionals, now has to become the stuff of political campaigns and legal reforms.

What is most bizarre to me is that this degradation of politics should be supported in the name of humanism, as if enshrining the right to die in law really were a vital human freedom that liberals should fight for (despite the fact that death is surely one ‘right’ nobody can take away from us).

Some of us uphold a rather different atheistic humanist outlook on matters of politics, liberty, life and death. I realised this week that it is exactly 70 years since Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary leader, wrote his short final Testament as his health declined (he was suffering from very high blood pressure and feared a brain haemorrhage). It was of course to be several months before Trotsky died in August 1940, assassinated with an ice pick by one of Stalin’s agents in his Mexican exile. But Trotsky’s Testament contains some useful thoughts on the question at hand.

It is largely a reaffirmation of his lifelong belief in the cause of human emancipation through revolution, despite the betrayals of the Stalinists. As Trotsky wrote: ‘I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist.’

Then a few days later, in a codicil to his Testament, Trotsky added his thoughts on committing suicide on the ground of ill health: ‘[If] I should be threatened with a long-drawn-out invalidism… then I reserve the right to determine for myself the time of my death. The “suicide” (if such a term is appropriate in this connection) will not in any respect be an expression of an outburst of despair or hopelessness… [W]hatever may be the circumstances of my death I shall die with unshaken faith in the communist future. This faith in man and his future gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion.’

Trotsky’s belief in ‘the communist future’ may seem badly misplaced after the degradations and subsequent collapse of Stalinism. But a wider ‘faith in man and his future’ courses through his writing, even when discussing possible suicide. In Trotsky’s mind there appears a clear separation between the big political issues about the struggle for society’s future, and the personal matter of when declining health might lead him to decide to ‘cut short one’s own life or, more correctly, the too-slow process of dying’. Seventy years on that is a spirit to which we might well give new life in the debate over the ‘right to die’.

Trotsky’s Testament ends as he gazes out of the window at the clear blue sky and the ‘sunlight everywhere’, even then looking upwards towards the fight for a better future: ‘Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.’

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at Ray Gosling and the problem of euthanasia. He also peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. spiked hosted a dignified debate about death. Kevin Yuill thought the ‘clarification’ of the law on assisted suicide would do more harm than good, and attacked the ‘right to die’ movement. Dr Margaret Branthwaite made the case for legalising assisted dying. Frank Furedi urged us to challenge the culture of death. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

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

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