Ray Gosling and the problem with euthanasia

A compassionate society should accept that mercy killings take place. But that doesn’t mean publicly sanctioning them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The case of Ray Gosling, the 70-year-old broadcaster who revealed on BBC TV’s Inside Out that he killed his lover who was dying from AIDS, captures one of the key problems with the campaign to legalise assisted suicide. Not content with the fact that society has traditionally ignored such instances of assisted voluntary euthanasia, knowing that they take place but choosing not to make a fuss about them, Gosling seems to want society to go a step further and sanction such acts. He appears to want public approval for what he did.

But that is not something society should give. For while it is compassionate to turn a blind eye to the assisted deaths of those in terminal pain, it would be wrong – and it would set a dangerously misanthropic precedent – to give a social, cultural blessing to such deaths. Tacitly tolerating assisted deaths is a very different thing from celebrating them, and the problem with today’s increasingly influential pro-euthanasia lobby is that it wants society to say ‘Yes, it is okay to kill’ rather than what it currently says: nothing.

In his piece to camera for the East Midlands TV show Inside Out, Gosling was vague about the facts of his alleged act. He didn’t give the name of the person he claims to have killed or where and when the alleged killing took place. He said he was in a hospital with his lover, who was in the final stages of AIDS and who wanted to die, when he asked the doctor to leave them alone. He then apparently smothered his lover with a pillow until he was dead and told the doctor when he returned: ‘He’s gone.’

It is of course perfectly understandable, and acceptable, that the doctor, who seems to have known what took place, and the dead man’s family, some of whom also knew, did not report Gosling to the authorities. Helping terminally ill people to die is as old as humanity itself. Not everybody does it as dramatically as Gosling claims he did – most of the time, a doctor administered too much morphine, or the son or daughter of an extremely ill person whispered to a nurse: ‘Please put her out of her misery’ – but for centuries, in the family home, in hospitals and in care homes, individuals have helped hopeless loved ones to die.

No one in their right mind would suggest sending the police to hospices around the country to investigate alleged mercy killings, and it is virtually unheard of for a medical professional to be arrested for ‘assisting death’. We tacitly accept that the important rules governing life and death – where of course murder is a crime, as is helping an individual to commit suicide – do not always apply towards the very end of life, if a terribly ill person expresses a desire to die or a family asks a doctor to end a loved one’s suffering.

But the problem arises when campaigners call upon society not only passively to accept that these acts of humanity take place, but actively to welcome them, to sanction them, even to celebrate them. Gosling and some of his supporters in the assisted suicide lobby say they want to bring these acts ‘into the open’, to raise awareness about them, and to encourage society to create new rules outlining when it is acceptable to help end someone’s life. But such acts do not belong ‘in the open’. If society were to legalise assisted suicide, it would send the very profound message that death is an acceptable solution to life’s trials and traumas. At a social level, it would elevate hopelessness and fatalism above the cultural affirmation of living, loving, fighting for another day, week, month or year.

All of us can accept that, behind closed doors, families and doctors sometimes make the intensely difficult decision that an individual’s situation has become hopeless. But none of us should welcome the public institutionalisation of hopelessness, the writing into law of the idea that it is sometimes okay to choose death rather than life. A good society’s focus should be on the extension and improvement of human life, ensuring people have the means and resources to live as long, as healthily, as comfortably and as freely as possible. Such a society can also show compassion towards the extremely ill who want to die, but by turning away and allowing them to make their decisions, not by elevating their predicament into some kind of national standard of When Death Is Acceptable.

Campaigners for the legalisation of assisted suicide say the problem is that the law is fudged and we need more clarity, in order to give sick individuals the ‘right to die’ and to protect from punishment any loved ones who help them. In fact, sometimes a fudge is better than clarity. Bringing the age-old practice of what used to be called ‘mercy killing’ into the open, and relabelling it ‘assisted suicide’ and dangerously extending its remit to cover not just the close-to-death but also the physically disabled and the depressed, would be very bad indeed – both for people who want to die and people who want to live.

It would be bad for people who want to die because it would formalise and drag out what is by its very nature an intensely private, agonising and usually quite quick decision. Keir Starmer, the UK’s director of public prosecutions, has drawn up a list of situations in which it would be acceptable to seek death; another suggestion is to have ‘assisted suicide tribunals’ at which the terminally ill could make their case for dying. Imagine a 92-year-old woman on the cusp of death who wants to be hurried along, or a 45-year-old man in the final days of terminal cancer who wants that extra shot of morphine, having to ask permission from a bunch of bureaucrats.

Formalising mercy killings would turn a deeply private family decision into a public spectacle. Indeed, mercy killing would become virtually impossible in these circumstances, since the ‘mercy’ bit – the doctor-family decision to exercise their humanity towards someone in extreme suffering – would be replaced by the sanction of the state. These would become state-sanctioned killings, not acts of humanity. The humane thing to do is to leave acts of mercy killings in private – yes, behind closed doors – where they belong and where they can be carried out in a properly humane fashion.

Even more importantly, legalising assisted suicide would be bad for those who want to live, too, for those who may be extremely ill, very badly disabled or just plain old, yet who can still see the magic in life and who think pain is a price worth paying for continued existence. The formalisation of death as a solution to hardship hints at a society that devotes a great deal of its energy and resources, and certainly its most impassioned liberal campaigning, not to the improvement of human life but to the creation of exit strategies for sick, exhausted and very old people.

Some of the more shrill critics of legalising assisted suicide argue that it will lead to ‘death panels’ at which our grannies will be forced to ‘choose death’. It won’t. But it would reveal a society that seems incapable of truly valuing human life, especially elderly human life, in its profoundness and complexity. When author Terry Pratchett, who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, suggested creating assisted suicide tribunals, he was championed by numerous commentators, one of whom described the rising numbers of old people with mental-health issues as a ‘social catastrophe’ and pointed out that each patient with dementia costs the economy ‘eight times as much as someone with heart disease’. Is this how we measure human life today? By its financial implications? The rush to legalise assisted suicide speaks to a society that has given up on celebrating human life in favour of thinking up ways to help people die.

‘Nothing human is alien to me.’ And sometimes, the desire to die, when in terminal decline, is a very human thing. But what is alien to me is a society that celebrates this very occasional desire to die, a society which is so down on life, so incapable of recognising that there is more to being human than the bodily and the bovine, so devoid of any vision for including elderly people in particular in the social make-up, that it instinctively, inexorably, almost thoughtlessly exerts more energy thinking up ways for people to leave this mortal coil than ways to improve existence upon it.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

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, while Brendan O’Neill peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

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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