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Angela Tilby: Euthanasia should not be a human right

25 November 2022

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MY HOLIDAY reading this summer included a post-pandemic novel, The Madness of Crowds (Hodder & Stoughton), by the Canadian crime writer Louise Penny. The shocking plot line involves her hero, Inspector Gamache, in organising police protection for a controversial statistician, Professor Abigail Robinson, who has proposed the routine euthanisia of the long-term sick and disabled.

Professor Robinson bases her argument on the twin grounds of compassion and massive savings to the economy. In a sinister misquotation of Julian of Norwich, the kindly Professor Robinson argues that a golden future awaits, when “all will be well” — only the well will be allowed to live.

I did not realise at the time that the storyline builds on Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying laws. These make provision for medically assisted death in any case in which suffering is deemed unbearable. From next spring, this will be widened to include those requesting death on mental-health grounds.

Those who request euthanasia do not have to be suffering from a terminal condition: they just have to be suffering enough to want to die. Last month, a man from Ontario with a long-term back problem requested a medical death on the grounds that he was about to become homeless. The Collège des Médécins du Quebec has proposed that some babies with severe disabilities should be eligible for euthanasia, if their parents request it. Such clinical deaths are not even to be regarded as a moral issue, but as a routine medical procedure.

The moral basis for the Canadian laws on medically assisted dying is that the choice to die is a simple human right, which the State has a duty to implement. If this seems extreme, we should be in no doubt that it represents a trend that is being followed elsewhere. New Zealand already has similar proposals in prospect. A Private Member’s Bill to permit assisted suicide in Scotland will shortly be presented at Holyrood. It seems inevitable that we will end up with an English version of it.

Of course, some church leaders are supportive, always on grounds of compassion, but it is naïve not to realise how flexible compassion can become once the principle is first allowed. The savings in terms of health care, the freeing of beds . . . all the way to the compassionate (convenient) removal of the desperate poor and homeless.

Julian of Norwich’s “All shall be well” was divine assurance in the midst of suffering, not a guarantee that suffering should be eliminated. But “All will be well”, as Penny warns in her book, is a much more sinister promise. While we, rightly or wrongly, huff and puff about human rights in Qatar, we may be becoming blind to the way in which the notion of human rights could end, as it appears to be doing in Canada, in questioning the right of the disabled, the vulnerable, and the poor to live at all.

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