A ticket to die

Behind the UK High Court's decision to allow a British woman to travel to a suicide clinic in Switzerland.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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The UK High Court ruled on Tuesday 30 November that the family of a woman with a progressive brain disorder should be allowed to take her to Switzerland for an assisted suicide. The woman, who is believed to be middle-aged and from the north of England, was diagnosed in 1997 with cerebellar ataxia, a rare form of brain disorder that would ultimately kill her.

Switzerland, which has the most assisted suicides in Europe, allows the non-profit organisation Dignitas to run a clinic that has helped at least 22 British people to die. High Court judge Mr Justice Hedley had imposed a temporary worldwide injunction in private last week preventing the husband and wife from leaving the country. The judge said he had asked for the case to be heard in public because it raised issues ‘that ought to be the subject of proper public discussion’. Despite this pronouncement, Justice Hedley also imposed a ban on identifying the name of the woman involved, the hospital where she has been treated, and the local authority that brought the case to keep her in the UK.

Most people seem to agree that this is yet another example of the government meddling in the affairs of someone who is in pain and wishes to die, with sentiments such as: ‘When an animal is suffering, we put it down as an act of kindness. Why don’t we treat humans in the same way?’ Yet there is more to this case than meets the eye.

What is interesting is the contention by both sides that they simply wish to protect the vulnerable. The local authority that brought the case voiced its ‘concern’ that Mrs Z, as she is being called, was a ‘vulnerable adult’ whose judgement should not be trusted. The council justified its intervention on the basis that it had provided some aids to assist in the care of Mrs Z.

Such a concern adds a new paternalistic layer to the increasingly authoritarian role of local government. With councils happy to slap anti-social behaviour orders on locals at the least provocation, this unnamed local authority wished to restrict the rights of competent adults to travel. It is clearly none of the council’s (nor anyone else’s) business what Mr and Mrs Z were intending to do. If a local authority can restrict the right to travel with the justification of protecting a ‘vulnerable adult’, what next? Stopping ‘vulnerable’ young men and women from spending their summers at 18-30 holiday camps?

Some claim that the case is about the individual’s ‘freedom’ to choose to die. Yet the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), one of the larger and more respectable organisations campaigning for a change to British laws on assisted suicide, also campaigns on the basis of people’s vulnerability.

The VES hopes to change the law from the present one, which allows suicide but provides a possible 14-year prison sentence for those who assist a suicide. Its website says: ‘The government is seriously failing in their duty toward terminally ill people who want medical assistance to die and also toward potentially vulnerable people who may be helped to die by organisations such as Dignitas.’ What is needed ‘to empower and protect competent terminally ill adults’ is ‘the choice of a well-regulated medically assisted death at home, here in the UK.’

Of course, there are concerns about Dignitas. It helped a British couple, Robert and Jennifer Stokes, to end their lives in 2003. Neither was thought to be terminally ill, but they were suffering from mental illness and chronic diseases and were in constant pain. Dignitas said in a statement that it didn’t feel that it should discriminate against the mentally ill. But these problems beset all assisted suicides. Who counts as a ‘competent terminally ill adult’?

One definition might be those who need no help or approval to eventuate their own deaths without assistance. Those requesting assisted suicide are really telling others that they feel their lives are worthless and pointless. They are saying that they are scared of what lies ahead. The mere fact that they choose to tell someone, that they wish to have society approve of their decision, should alert us to the fact that they have not really thought the decision through. Those determined to go would have planned and executed their demise without appealing to others to help them – and it is only these who should be judged as ‘competent’. We are ill-serving those who try to communicate their anguish by agreeing to help to kill them.

The law, as it stands, allows suicide. We are not being asked to legalise suicide but to help push the proverbial man teetering on the bridge, to agree that his life (and by extension, all human life) is worthless and pointless. Of course, it is deplorable that any council should seek to restrict anyone from travelling for any reason. But neither should we cheer at a sad decision based on depression, however understandable.

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Topics Politics


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