As Charles Killick Millard conceded, there was an issue about grandparents. Millard, the leading figure of the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society back in the 30s, realised that people might cajole their elderly relatives into choosing death. But this had its benefits, he argued: ‘It would make querulous old folk more careful how they dilated upon their aches and pains.’ Havelock Ellis, one of the Society’s celebrity supporters, was blunter: he expressed his annoyance that ‘we are terribly afraid of killing those citizens whom we all regard as financially unpromising.’
There is a callousness in those remarks which resurfaces whenever assisted suicide is put forward. You can hear it in Baroness Warnock’s notorious suggestion that people with dementia could be ‘put down’ to stop them ‘wasting the resources of the NHS’. You can hear it when Polly Toynbee muses that it might not be such a bad thing if ‘the frail’ were ‘intimidated into hastening the end of their lives’. Of course, these are not the only voices. The Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society has since rebranded itself as Dignity in Dying; DiD insists that the Marris Bill, which they modelled on Oregon’s law and which MPs will debate on Friday, is a restrained, safe proposal. Under the Bill’s terms, people can request lethal drugs if they are expected to die within six months, are ‘mentally competent’, and have had the green light from two doctors and a judge.
DiD’s Michael Charouneau tells me that if the Bill passes, they ‘wouldn’t be a campaigning organisation’ any more but would confine themselves to providing information. But for all DiD’s undoubted good intentions, I wonder whether they understand the implications as clearly as Warnock and Toynbee do. The concern about the Bill is not just that it will expand over time – plausible though that prospect is – and turn Britain into another Belgium. Even if the slippery slope was all fenced off by DiD’s safeguards – as we are assured it is – even then, an assisted suicide law is still (to quote the disabilities campaigner Baroness Campbell) a law for the strong at the expense of the weak.
The Marris Bill says something rather odd. It says that the law should never, ever, allow anybody at all, under any circumstances, to help someone take their own life – except if that someone is terminally ill, in which case it’s fine. It suggests, as Kevin Yuill has put it, that every suicide is a tragedy, unless you are terminally ill. It looks like a statement that some lives are more worth living than others. And given that the Bill’s definition of ‘terminally ill’ would also include many disabled people, you can see why Scope and Disability Rights UK oppose the Bill.
The arguments for assisted suicide hang on the assumption that everyone is an isolated individual, gathering a private stash of legal rights. They do not address the social impact of a new law. Millions of people, some very occasionally, some for years on end, struggle with the thought that they are no use to anybody and would be better off dead. If the law has said ‘no’ to that impulse, it has been in order to assert hope in the face of despair. Assisted suicide says a big indiscriminate ‘yes’ to people’s despair – and it cannot choose which people will hear that ‘yes’ loudest.
No doubt we will be told a lot in the next couple of days about Oregon’s law and how it is ‘working well’. I’m not sure what evidence would be accepted as showing that the law is working badly. Oregon has just recorded its biggest-ever annual increase in assisted suicides. The overwhelming majority of ill people taking the overdose did it, not because they were in pain, but because they lacked autonomy, didn’t enjoy life, or felt undignified – in other words, because they were unhappy. Oregon may have stumbled on a new form of social Darwinism: the survival of the most stoical.
It is a dark irony that the momentum for assisted suicide is growing just as old age is getting harder. The NHS and care system are creaking under a weight they can’t bear, as none other than Polly Toynbee showed last week in an unsettling report. An estimated five million older people say their main companion is the TV. Solidarity between the generations is fading, with fraud perpetrated within families (often on older relatives) up 384 per cent. It would be compassionate – though also very difficult – to tackle these problems. It would scarcely be compassionate or responsible to create a legal market for lethal poison right in the middle of them. But it would be very easy.