Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Assisted Suicide campaigners’ deaths prove we do not need to change assisted suicide laws

By Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick (OBE), Director of EPC - International.

Kevin Fitzpatrick
at European Parliament.
e do not ‘speak ill of the dead’. De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est, a mortuary aphorism that dates from at least the 4th century is, I suspect, rooted in a superstitious fear that the dead may come back to harm us if we say bad things about them; perhaps that we might ourselves be condemned to wander as ‘lost souls’ in revenge for badmouthing those who are gone. We may, at times, wish to honour the memory of someone we couldn’t stand in life, or whose works and their consequences we hated; but if we are to avoid dishonesty, insincerity, we must have the courage to stand by what we said when they were alive. We can still be properly respectful in how we speak.

Of course the rule does not apply universally, but it seems we only allow ourselves to tell hard truths if the dead person was truly bad, a mass murderer. Maybe that comes from recognising that we are all fragile, given to making mistakes, doing some bad things at times.

In any case, it is surely possible to distinguish between the person and their legacy. I met and debated with Debbie Purdy a couple of times and I thought she was wrong – she made what is called a ‘category mistake’ – mixing up the category of one individual saying ‘I want to die now’ with the idea that such a wish must be enshrined in law. Individual wishes are just that – individual. Laws cover every citizen of a state or jurisdiction in which they are passed - which means they are a whole different category. It was her campaigning for this category mistake to be legalised that brought us into opposition.

After hours of grilling by Tony Nicklinson, in an interview he had demanded, I asked him: ‘Say you get your way tomorrow and the law is changed, and the next day, even just one innocent person dies as a result - what would you say?’ He would not respond at that point, and terminated the interview.

But that is the point for me: if, as a campaigner, you cannot guarantee the safety of others, then the death of innocent people under such laws, even that threat, should stop the campaign in its tracks, force campaigners to re-assess what they are doing.

The legacy of such campaigners, three of whom (two in Britain, one in Australia) died ‘peacefully’ in hospice or palliative care settings over Christmas, is surely the biggest, final irony. These three died ‘good deaths’ without any change in law. They have proved there is no need for a change in law in the UK, in Australia, anywhere in the world.

So it is not out of some false respect that I say nothing about Debbie Purdy the person, but out of honesty, recognition that I am not qualified to speak about her personally. I barely knew her. I wish so many others would acknowledge that they too really knew nothing about her as a person. But the time I did spend with her allowed me to understand her motivations - whilst still seeing her mistake. The problem was and is, the damage that mistake brings.

Pro-assisted suicide/euthanasia lobbies around the world claim that ‘the people want this’ change in law. Opinion polls, which everyone knows are too easily manipulated, show one thing: people can be afraid to die. We needed a poll to tell us that? These polls confirm that when asked specific questions, 80% say they would like to die peacefully, at home in their own beds, surrounded by (only) loving family (and not the ones who can’t wait to see the end of the person dying, or get their hands on their money). The biggest surprise for me has always been – only 80%? What on earth do the other 20% want for themselves, for me?

Media headlines, that most people want to die peacefully, are just empty, the most facile statements of the obvious. Such headlines, these polls, give no additional strength to an already terminally weak argument about changing laws, and those who pretend the vox-pop is some kind of marker will run as fast as they can if the same opinion polls show, as they invariably do, that we should bring back the death sentence.

In Belgium, which only gave up its death sentencing in 1996, a convicted serial rapist/ murderer was supposed to die by lethal injection later this month (January 11, 2015) under their euthanasia law. Now the doctor has refused to do it. In a perversion of liberal compassion, this man was refused proper psychological care (after all, compassion has its limits) – but an execution, death by euthanasia – can you see the difference? For him? For us? Public outrage has stayed his sentence: for now. Even Belgium’s Dr Death, Wim Distelmans, has counted this as a step too far.

Debbie Purdy has left a legacy: a determined few who cynically use emotion will feed on the unfounded and illegitimate reactions of those who knew her not at all, and by those who opine in the shallowest manner about her ‘courage’, and all the rest. From our shared perspective of living disabled lives, I think it’s safe to hazard that Debbie knew something that a lot of people, and perhaps especially a lot of disabled people already know: living with a disability is not a question of courage – it is a routine, sometimes a tough one, not a lifestyle choice: disability is our fact of life.

Anyone can face the question ‘Yes or no?’ ‘Do I get up – or give up - today?’ A whole philosophical movement called existentialism was born of the feeling: Sartre and Camus – neither of whom died through suicide. Most disabled people admit they do not always have one answer or another, or the same answer every time, but most also get up and get on with their lives as parents, spouses, siblings, friends, work colleagues, customers, etc.

I say ‘most’ because like any section of the population, ‘disabled people’ is not a smooth category – there are as many different kinds of disabled people as there are people. Some of us will not want to lead a disabled life; some, will be ground down by lack of support from the world around them, will become exhausted by unnecessary struggles, the futility they experience crying out against the injustice say, of the destruction of the Independent Living Fund. By all accounts, the rate of suicide is rising in Britain amongst disabled people so badly affected by the cuts in support for them to live independently. Is that a reason for killing those sufferers, for making it legal for someone else to do so?

I say, categorically: ‘No’.

As Sartre’s intellectual exercise proves, suicide is not such an alien thought to any of us. We do not need to fear it: it is part of the human experience to contemplate ‘disappearing’ when the going gets tough – just ask Lord Lucan. We all want the ground to swallow us up at some point – that’s why the expression is so common in our language – because the feeling is.

The terrible suicide contagion that hit (and I believe still continues to impact) on a South Wales community was never more poignantly highlighted than after one young teenager’s death – she was reported as having a handful of social media ‘friends’, being something of an outcast abused by her peers, a very unhappy child from an impoverished background. Her message was ‘Just wait and see how many friends I will have after this’ – the appalling sadness of any teenager being so fooled. Sure enough, there were many hypocritical ‘friends’ who had been bullying her, who then appeared on her ‘page’ - for a week or two - to declare their undying love for her, after she hanged herself. She wasn’t around to see it happen.

The power of attention pulls others into media campaigns too – it sustains them, gives them purpose in life – for a while. Campaigners seek results, naturally. But if Debbie Purdy’s legacy is a change in the law in Britain, built on the mistake of making hard cases into bad law, I personally will count it as a stain on her life and memory. Others may be upset by that but I think if this does happen, they will have made worse of her as a person in a way that I never could speaking any ill of her.

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