The following article was written by The Times columnist, Tim Montgomerie, and published in The Times UK on March 13, 2014.
By Tim Mongomerie
The public backs euthanasia. But before we empower doctors to kill we should understand where it might lead.
Some readers of this newspaper could hardly be more selfish and I’m drawing up a little list of those of you who are becoming an intolerable burden on taxpayers and your families.
Top of that list are those of you exhibiting early signs of dementia. In the not too distant future you’ll be draining about £30,000 every year from the economy once the cost of your prescriptions and care are totted up. And, frankly, there are already enough of you now but there’ll be a million more by 2050. That’s a lot of overcrowding in hospital wards. Haven’t you read about the nation’s debt crisis?
And there’s those of you who are frankly a bit past it. You’re living in an expensive house and your indebted kids are struggling to pay the bills. Come on, you’ve had a good innings. Time to declare, pass your life savings to your grandchildren — before you squander it all on home helps and stair lifts.
And what about you in the corner with chronic depression? Time to give up and donate your healthy organs to someone in desperate need of them. And don’t get me started on the cost of looking after those of you with physical disabilities.
You will have realised (I hope) that I don’t mean a word of this but 38 years after Michael York and Jenny Agutter starred in Logan’s Run the idea of terminating life when it is past its sell-by date is moving from science fiction to the mainstream.
Mary Warnock, for example, often described without irony as “Britain’s leading moral philosopher” has opened the door to the State becoming a mass killer of its older, sicker citizens. As well as supporting euthanasia for the terminally ill, in a magazine interview she recommended a much wider use of the lethal injection or poisoned broth. “If somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die,” she has said, “because they’re a burden to their family, or the State, then I think they too should be allowed to die.”
Lord Falconer of Thoroton would not admit to such an ambition for his much more modest assisted suicide Bill, now in its early parliamentary stages, but we shouldn’t be under any illusions about the journey it would set the country on. Wherever assisted suicide (or any other form of euthanasia) has been legalised for narrow circumstances, a loophole opens up through which convoys of hearses are driven.
In the Netherlands people with early dementia are already being visited by mobile euthanasia units. In Belgium the law allows euthanasia only when, technically, “the patient is in a medically futile condition of constant unbearable suffering”. Wesley J. Smith, of the US-based Centre for Bioethics and Culture, has listed examples of ways in which the law has been interpreted much more expansively.
It has, for example, permitted the euthanasia of a transsexual left distraught by the results of a botched sex change operation and elderly couples who prefer joint and early death to living alone. Belgian doctors encourage each other to look out for suicidal patients whose organs can be harvested. In one PowerPoint presentation it was noted that patients with neuro-muscular diseases were good potential donors because, unlike cancer sufferers, they have “high-quality organs”.
And don’t think that Britain will be any different. We can’t regulate the banks or the police properly and assisted dying laws would soon become lethal tools in the hands of activist judges, greedy relatives and financially stretched health services. Look at our abortion laws. Introduced to end the horror of back-street terminations, they’re now used to end late-term pregnancies because of a cleft lip or a club foot.
I don’t doubt that euthanasia will eventually become legal. If Lord Falconer’s Bill fails, another attempt will quickly follow, because public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of reform. People are simply too frightened of an uncomfortable death, a lonely old age or of living in places such as Orchid View, the West Sussex “care home” where residents were abused or neglected.
The right response to these fears is to invest in palliative medicine and the hospice movement, so that people’s final years are not unhappy or painful. The right response is to incentivise extended families to look after precious ageing relatives. But it’s easier to kill than to care and with the exception of gay marriage (a law that emphasised social solidarity rather than individual freedom) the overwhelming drift of laws is towards the triumph of individual rights — the individual’s right to divorce, terminate a pregnancy or use drugs. The right to die will be irresistible to a society with a near absolutist belief in individual self-determination.
I understand why people fear death and want the right to die. It’s why courts should and do exercise discretion with those who assist in the suicide of a very poorly relative. But my greater fear is that we end up living in a society where people feel a duty to die: a duty to the taxpayer or to financially distressed relatives. Perhaps you don’t share my anxieties but let’s enter this brave new world aware of the risks. I, for one, don’t want doctors, or the State, to be given the power to kill the old, the elderly or the disabled. I fear where it might lead.