In defence of old people’s right to live

Those of us who see great worth in old people’s lives should oppose the demands for a ‘right to die’ for over-70s.

Kevin Yuill

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It has been reported that an 83-year-old British man suffering from the early stages of dementia will travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, the first Briton suffering from dementia to do so. The unnamed individual will join an estimated 150 Britons who have died at the clinic. Like the 23-year-old Daniel James, paralysed in a rugby accident, and the musician, Sir Edward Downes, the gentleman in question is not in the final stages of a terminal disease.

In itself a tragic case, the fact that the man is not suffering from a terminal illness gives us a glance into the future of a society in which assisted suicide (aka assisted dying) is institutionalised. It indicates the misanthropy hiding behind the skirts of ‘respectable’ organisations like Dignity in Dying and its American counterpart, Compassion and Choices. Rather than simply involving a very few cases, legalising assisted suicide may usher in the sort of world that Michael Irwin would like to see.

Who is Michael Irwin? He is a right-to-die activist, a former president of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies and chair of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society before it changed its name to Dignity in Dying. It was he who brought the case of the 83-year-old dementia sufferer to light.

He is also a founder member of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS). SOARS campaigns for the provision of doctor-assisted suicides for the elderly (its website is coy about exactly how old), whether they are suffering from a disease or not. In other words, Britain should provide suicide with safeguards for all elderly people.

Legalised suicide for the elderly is distinct from what Dignity in Dying and other organisations campaign for. They advocate legalisation of assisted suicides only for those suffering from a terminal illness with less than a year to live. In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, only those with a terminal illness and less than six months to live qualify.

Irwin, despite being an outlier for his willingness to say the unsayable, indicates the logic and the future of a society in which assisted suicide is accepted. The backbone of the campaign is not really autonomy (or else they would treat all suicide requests equally), but rather a misanthropic disdain for the elderly.

SOARS, it is true, has limited support in this country. But what about the Netherlands, where assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal and have been accepted practice for decades? Rather than standing down after legalisation, Dutch organisations remain active. The stated aims of the Nederlandse Vereniging Voor Een Vrijwillig Levenseinde (NVVE), an organisation that claims 135,000 members, suggest that this is not simply a movement that automatically disappears once the legislation is in place. Instead, it calls for ‘as broad as possible use and social acceptance’ of assisted suicide ‘as a human right’.

More revealing is the recent Dutch initiative to provide assisted suicides to all Dutch people over 70 who feel tired of life. This is the demand of a citizens’ initiative in the Netherlands called Uit Vrije Wil (Out of Free Will) and it is supported by the relatively mainstream NVVE, the Dutch Green and D66 parties, former government ministers, artists, doctors and legal scholars.

According to its website, the initiative attracted 117,000 letters of support from Dutch people between January and May 2010. This group refers to that ‘tired of life’ moment as the time ‘life is completed, when a lack of purpose befalls elderly people, when their family, friends and acquaintances have all passed away, and when they feel left behind and unable to escape an empty existence’.

The group does not advocate suicide for all, insisting that helping young people commit suicide ‘cannot be justified’. When a younger person kills himself, a spokesman said, ‘it is always a disaster’. But for those over 70, suicide is apparently to be welcomed as a choice. The initiative ultimately failed in the Dutch parliament but continues as a possibility.

While campaigners for assisted suicide bridle at the often hysterical Nazism analogies drawn by opponents, it is clear that the elderly do represent a category of people whose very existence is regarded by some as detrimental to the rest of us. Back in the 1930s, those favouring the right to die were less coy about calling for the weeding out of the unfit. Physician William Duncan McKim suggested a ‘gentle, painless death’ for America’s drunkards, criminals and people with disabilities, calling for the jettisoning of ‘the unreasonable dogma that all human life is intrinsically sacred’ (1).

So it is today with the elderly. Like racial and ethnic groups in the past, they are held responsible for contributing nothing to society and using up valuable resources. The movement for legalising assisted suicide, despite its appealing language of ‘choice’ and ‘autonomy’ feeds upon and explicates this misanthropic trope. Advocating suicide for one group and not others simply indicates the differential value we place on peoples’ lives today.

Kevin Yuill is author of the new book Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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