IT LOOKS from the press coverage as if the fight against assisted dying is lost. I wish it weren’t. I am myself a convinced slippery-slope man, and I think that, within a few decades, the right to die will have become an obligation to do so if you’re no use to society.
None of the safeguards that I have seen proposed look adequate to this problem. Either they are too weak to do the job, or they are too strong to work at all. Baroness Meacher’s Bill, currently discussed, wants applications for assisted dying to be approved by two doctors, and then considered by a High Court judge.
Half a million people die every year in the UK. It would take only a minute fraction of them to apply for assisted dying for the system to be overwhelmed — supposing that NHS had recovered from the Covid pandemic. Even without the bottleneck of court involvement, it is entirely unreasonable to suppose that a conscientious psychiatrist could assess the sincerity of someone’s desire to kill themselves in a single, hurried interview.
The pressure from good people who believe in euthanasia, however, is clearly irresistible in the long term. Although the papers covered the joint letter from faith leaders against the Bill (News, 22 October), they did so as news. The features, in which the story is given human flesh, were all about admirable people dying bravely, but in favour of assisted suicide.
Lord Field, one of the most notable Christian MPs of the past decades, was the most remarkable, but the one that stuck in my mind was a wonderful, profoundly loving, Observer profile of Diana Rigg by her daughter, Rachael Stirling, who nursed her through terminal cancer.
It’s full of marvellous, unsentimental emotion: “When we asked her to come and live with us, I had no idea how hard it would be or how traumatic. Yet it was the greatest privilege to help her to die as comfortably as I could and she returned that kindness with a stoicism that shielded me from her darkest moments. We showed each other a love without end, in the end.
“Dignity: the most important thing was to preserve her dignity, to make certain she was not in pain and to make sure she felt comfortable, safe and loved. We had Camparis at four o’clock in the afternoon, every afternoon, right up until the day she died.”
Right at the end, Ms Stirling adds: “There is so much more to say; of her fervent belief in the right to die and the recordings we made at her request, where she stated her impassioned argument for dying with dignity. But that is for another day.”
And for people without such a daughter, dignity will increasingly mean suicide.
Behind this debate, of course, lies the general dismissal of “religion” as a serious force in the world. A nice example came from a Janan Ganesh column in the FT about the craze for pet ownership among the upper middle class in the United States: “You only need brief exposure to a pet-mad millennial to sense that it is not a twee whim being indulged. It is a hole being filled.
“There is a sadness peculiar to lives that, while good or even grand by world standards, have not worked out as planned. For some people, it is about being reluctantly single. For others, the drag is being reluctantly married. Career disappointment is usually part of the mix. Whatever the specifics of the pathos, it tends to kick in much earlier in life — the thirties — than often assumed. And when it does, pets take on a profound importance as escape and consolation. It is a lot of pressure to put on a beagle. Two generations ago, it might have been religion, volunteer work or a local allotment that did the trick.”
Perhaps if the faith leaders had got Alan Titchmarsh to sign their letter, it would have had more cut-through.
The most positive description of religious work came from an unexpected place: a long first-person piece in The Guardian by a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital, in New York, once associated with its treatment of mentally ill patients.
“Fernando described watching another detainee hang himself in his cell. My own reaction was horror, but I watched his face turn almost wistful.
“‘I was jealous,’ he said. ‘Why couldn’t I do that?’
“‘You want to die like that,’ I said, clarifying. ‘Yeah, instead of wasting my time doing this shit.’ My first instinct was to pull out my cape and remind him of his worth and value under heaven. There was a time when I said such things, but now I tried to embody them instead.
“For an hour I sat with Fernando and listened, the two of us together in that terrible boat. And as I got up to leave, I said to him: ‘I enjoy talking with you. You’re a real blessing to me today.’ I watched him do a double-take, then tears came to his eyes.
“‘For real?’ he said. ‘No one’s ever described me like that.’”
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