Aspirational politics: dead and buried?
In the age of euthanasia, politics has become less about pursuing the Good Life than ensuring a Good Death.
Politics, if it no longer allows us to improve life, appears to be moving into the realm of death. Margo MacDonald, a veteran socialist member of the Scottish parliament and former deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, voiced her views on assisted dying (as assisted suicide is now known) on Panorama this week, the BBC’s flagship news and current events programme. The 65-year-old, who was first elected to parliament in 1973, hopes to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland by gaining the support of the requisite 18 Scottish members of parliament.
In the Panorama film, MacDonald revealed that she suffers from Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease of the brain that affects the nerve cells. She interviewed both proponents and opponents of assisted suicide. MacDonald said this was ‘the start of that process towards changing the law in Scotland which would allow autonomy in the matter of physician assisted suicide – dying’ (1).
There have been several similarly high-profile cases in the UK recently that have raised the issue of assisted suicide. Daniel James, a 23-year-old paralysed in a sports accident, travelled to Switzerland to die at the Dignitas clinic, which has helped more than 1,000 people to commit suicide. An unnamed 90-year-old from London died at Ex International, a clinic in Berne. It charges about £1,000 less than the better-known Dignitas clinic in Zurich. It’s nice to think that, in a time of economic hardship, someone will help you commit suicide at a reduced rate. In the United States, buried by the news of Obama’s victory, was the passage of Proposition 1000 in the state of Washington. Proposition 1000 allows Washingtonians as well as Oregonians to opt for an early exit.
MacDonald’s film raises interesting and pertinent questions. Freedom and autonomy in dying are increasing, it appears, just as freedom in life is being taken away. The messages are often contradictory. The freedoms to ingest too much alcohol, to smoke, to eat less than five vegetables a day, to drink any alcohol when pregnant, to feed our children chips or – God forbid – to own a firearm that might be used to harm someone, are eroding. But in death, freedom lives.
In some ways, the assisted suicide is the logical terminus of politics’ movement into personal lifestyle. MacDonald – by all appearances a fiery and fairly glamorous Scottish nationalist and proud socialist in her past – has been sidelined from Scottish nationalist politics. The politics of dying breathes new life into an ailing political career. Just as their profoundly depressing circumstances lead MacDonald and fellow sufferers of incurable and degenerative diseases to invest hope in controlling the circumstances of their own deaths, so tired and washed-up politicians – especially those who wanted profound change – become attracted to the politics of death.
The problem for MacDonald and others is that it won’t work. For the vast majority of individuals, assisted suicide will never be a reality. The numbers that actually avail themselves of the service in Oregon, which produces an excellent report into its legalised assisted suicide, have remained at less than one per cent of the number who fit the criteria – a few dozen per year.
What proponents of assisted suicide really want is the chimerical freedom to choose their own deaths. As one of MacDonald’s interviewees, nearly paralysed by advanced Parkinson’s, noted, she wanted to wait both until the disease was too much to bear and she was ready to say goodbye to her grandchildren. She asked the unanswerable question ‘when is my life not worth living?’.
In an individual sense, people will be less free the more regulated the whole assisted suicide process becomes. Doctors will need to broach the topic with patients, and then, if the Scottish legislation replicates a failed bill in the House of Lords, have to fill out paperwork. What they won’t be able to do is what all good doctors have done in the past – put a patient in the final days or hours of life out of his or her agony.
But the real case to be made against legalising assisted suicide is the effect such a change will have on our culture, indeed on our society as a whole, rather than on individuals. It is based on a profound misunderstanding of human life. Decisions made about dying bear no reference to the rest of a life that precedes it. As St Robert Bellarmine, a reformation-era Italian cleric and author of The Art of Dying Well, noted: ‘[T]he general rule, that “he who lives well, will die well”, must be mentioned before all others: for since death is nothing more than the end of life, it is certain that all who live well to the end, die well.’ Death is only the end of life, the full-stop (period) at the end of the sentence. It is what precedes death that creates meaning.
Legislating in favour of assisted suicide will create far more questions than answers. If assisted suicide is a question for the individual, do we support any individual’s assessment of his or her ‘quality of life’? What about the lovelorn 21-year-old or the disabled individual? Must we give them, too, a push off the proverbial bridge? What is ‘quality of life’? With this legislation, it no longer has any social meaning; instead it’s to be measured in purely physical terms, like the ability to go to the toilet unaided. No wonder that disabled organisations and medical personnel – those with some experience in these areas – are the strongest in opposition to legalising assisted suicide. Those who advocate it simply refuse to think hard enough about the implications of a step unprecedented in human history.
On a lighter note, those who feel that proponents of assisted suicide are rational and those opposing are overly religious, pay a visit to the Nalanda West Dying Well website. There, if MacDonald’s legislation is successful, Scots who wish to die well may avail themselves of a clown in place of a priest at the death-bed. Or, if you’d prefer, a Buddhist clown, whose jesting is ‘an extension of her spiritual practice in the sense that it is creative play and challenges the viewer to wake up to simple truths about our world and our reality’ (2). I, for one, would very much like a chin-stroking mime artist to help me make sense of it all in my final hours.
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).
spiked hosted a dignified debate about death. Kevin Yuill deplored the public parading of a severely disfigured French woman who wanted the ‘right to die’. He 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.
(1) Assisted suicide law change bid, BBC News, 8 December 2008
(2) See Nalanda West’s website here.
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