In search of a ‘good death’

More people may support the 'right to die', but they often change their views when their own time comes.

Kevin Yuill

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Topics Politics

This week spiked is running a series of articles on the changing nature of Britain, as captured in the new British Social Attitudes report published last week. Here, Kevin Yuill interrogates the claims that more people support euthanasia.

The website of the UK group Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, currently has a photograph showing a smiling bunch of people holding placards saying ‘82 per cent’ – signifying the fact that 82 per cent of the British public support calls for more liberalised assisted suicide laws.

If the new British Social Attitudes Survey, published last week, is accurate, those in the picture will still be smiling. The survey shows that, despite the setbacks over the Assisted Dying Bill in the UK House of Lords and the stalling of campaigns for assisted suicide in the United States, Australia and elsewhere, 80 per cent of people in Britain say that the law should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow a doctor to end someone’s life at the person’s request if they have an incurable and painful terminal disease.

The figures bear further inspection, though. Things aren’t quite so clear-cut as some of the headlines – such as ‘Four out of five want to give doctors the right to end life of terminally ill patients’ – suggest. Only 60 per cent say the law should allow a doctor to assist a patient to commit suicide. This is significant because this scenario is precisely what the Assisted Dying Bill, which will shortly be introduced to parliament yet again, is proposing. Less than half support it for those with incurable and painful diseases from which they will not die, or for those completely dependent on others for all their needs (but not in danger of death).

The methodology of the survey, though only the highlights are currently available, appears questionable. There are apparently five imaginary ‘scenarios’ through which the survey sums up support for a change in the law. The nature of the exercise is instructive, because, as we shall see, the issue of assisted suicide is largely imaginary.

However, the exercise may also lead to inaccuracies. Whereas we might support a doctor’s action in relation to an individual in one of the given ‘scenarios’, it does not follow that we would support a change in the law. Though most would support the action of a soldier on the battlefield shooting a comrade who was dying hideously and painfully in order to end his pain, it would be ridiculous to legislate for such a rare event.

There is an old and honourable tradition within British law of looking the other way in certain circumstances. Doctors, for example, have long helped to ‘speed along’ the death of a terminally ill and hopeless patient without needing the law to sanction or oversee it. Family members and friends have accepted this in their own ‘scenarios’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they would support a law to determine when, where and how such end-of-life intervention can occur. There is a difference between supporting the actions of a doctor in certain scenarios and supporting the encroachment of legalistic rules and regulations into these areas of life and death.

The survey shows that support for euthanasia is weakest amongst people who regularly attend a religious service. People who attend a religious service once a week or more supported euthanasia in an average of 1.4 out of five scenarios, where those who never or practically never attend a religious service supported euthanasia in an average of 2.8 of the five scenarios. Those who state that they believe in the ‘sanctity of life’ (those opposed to abortion, suicide and the death penalty) are also more likely to be opposed to euthanasia. So those who agree strongly that ‘suicide is never justified’ supported euthanasia in 1.9 out of five scenarios, while those who disagree strongly that ‘suicide is never justified’ supported euthanasia in 3.3 out of five scenarios.

The link between religion and attitudes to assisted dying is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the survey. It implies that the only bastion against a change in the law is religious sentiment. But why do those apparently bereft of religion have a more liberal attitude towards euthanasia and assisted suicide, and, according to the survey, to suicide in general? Why should it be the case that those who do not adhere to traditional religious beliefs are more willing to support the ending of human life in certain circumstances?

Those with religious sentiments generally believe there is some sort of rhyme and reason to the world, some sort of meaning that makes them more comfortable with accepting their fates. When a situation over which the individual has no control arises, they reason that ‘it is in God’s hands now’.

Those who do not attend church are not, however, necessarily irreligious. Suspicious as they have become about many secular forms of authority, including priests and doctors, they are also suspicious of God and any plan He may have. Rather than rejecting God, though, and moving to an understanding of their existence within a world of men and women, they often simply feel abandoned by God. Many seek to replicate the religious promise of eternal life by making permanent their independence, their control and their ability to decide their own fate. To many, helplessness would represent the end of their own selves.

This is why such a discrepancy exists between those who would like to have the option of suicide at the end and those who actually take up this option. In Oregon, where it is legal for physicians to prescribe deadly medicines to those suffering from a terminal illness, only a handful – less than one per cent – of those who request information about how to end their own lives actually goes through with the act. Assisted suicide, it seems, is primarily an issue in the imagination of those for whom dying is a far-off prospect – they support euthanasia in certain ‘scenarios’ raised by survey compilers, and some of them support a change in the law, because they imagine a scenario in their own futures where they might be dependent and helpless. That support for euthanasia appears stronger amongst young people and the able-bodied seems to suggest that it is motivated by fearful imaginings more than by cast-iron support for doctor-administered death. This can be seen as a kind of faux religion, with its longing for a ‘good death’.

Outside of these groups, assisted suicide tends to be resisted by the old, by those involved in the hospice movement, and by doctors. Perhaps that is because experience of dying brings home the social nature of human life, that we live through the beneficence of others both past and present.

Kevin Yuill is lecturer in American studies at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action is published by Rowman & Littlefield. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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