Assisted dying: a product of pessimism

This occasionally meandering critique of assisted dying may be written by a priest, but that should not detract from the sharp insights and cogent criticism contained within.

Kevin Yuill

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George Pitcher’s 150-page book, A Time to Live, presents a case against assisted suicide and euthanasia. Pitcher, an Anglican priest and former religion editor of the Daily Telegraph, has written on this subject many times before. In his columns, he takes a pugilistic approach to secular humanism, perhaps having decided that offence is often the best defence. But his book is more measured and reasonable in its style.

The problem ensuing from a priest having written this book is that it conforms to the image many readers have of the typical critic of assisted suicide. There is a religious agenda, so the stereotype goes, that the author will seek to foist upon an unwilling, increasingly secular and humanist society. Religious critics of assisted suicide, it is often claimed, want to drag us all back into their medieval paradise where God spoke and men and women listened. This prejudiced outlook is a shame because, even for confirmed atheists like myself, A Time to Live is worth reading.

The book starts on a familiar note for anyone who has followed the assisted suicide debate – the personal. ‘I tried to kill my mother in 1993’, Pitcher announces, making me wonder whether I am the only commentator on issues like these not to have had murderous thoughts at the (albeit few) deathbed scenes I have attended. Pitcher explains that the raison d’être for the book is the publication of Is There A Christian Case for Assisted Dying? by the Anglican priest Paul Badham, who rationalises assisted suicide in Christian terms. Badham also begins with the obligatory personal experience.

With some books, the reader gets, throughout the chapters, a very good sense of where the author means to go. A Time to Live is not one of them. The chapters are vaguely themed and Pitcher tends to cast out excellent observations and points somewhat randomly. He is weakest, perhaps, on history. The ideas around autonomy expressed by assisted-suicide advocates only emerged in the 1970s. They did not, as Pitcher suggests, emanate from the explosion of creativity, radicalism and questioning in the 1960s, but in the reaction that shrank from the grand expectations of that decade. As Ian Dowbiggin has observed, the publication of Our Bodies Ourselves in the early 1970s marked the beginning of the idea that the personal is political – a notion that the campaign for assisted suicide surely epitomises. As Pitcher understands it, the campaign for the right to die emerges from pessimism, not optimism.

Within the meandering chapters that tend to stray far from the issue of assisted suicide are embedded some excellent points. Pitcher reminds us that those proponents who like to cite the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill should remember that Mill’s conception of freedom did not include the reductive assumption that individuals own their own lives. Mill was happy to countenance outlawing other acts where individuals might dispose of their own lives. Duelling and selling oneself into slavery should, by the logic of many assisted-suicide advocates, be permitted (we might enshrine the right to duel or the right to sell oneself into slavery). But Mill sought to increase general freedom; selling oneself into slavery diminished the freedom of all for the sake of the freedom of one, as slavery is incompatible with freedom. Similarly, whereas we must accept death as reality, we ought not to embrace it: the death of an individual diminishes our collective capacity to act upon the world.

In the somewhat hysterically entitled chapter ‘The Killing Fields’, Pitcher examines the areas where assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal. Whereas early on he argues (correctly) that the demand for assisted suicide is exaggerated, he indulges in the same exaggeration of the figures coming out of Oregon, one of the three US states in which assisted suicide is legal. The campaign group Dignity in Dying is surely correct to insist that there is a ‘slow and steady’ rate of assisted suicides in Oregon. This is important, because it indicates that the need for assisted suicide exists more in the imaginations of the young and middle-aged than it does in reality.

Pitcher also hits the target when he questions the malarkey about ‘choice’ and the consumerist nonsense that would have assisted suicide as part of a lifestyle. This is a choice to end all other choices, a choice that negates the differences between cowardice and bravery. This is, as Pitcher says, the product of a postmodern approach to ethics.

He often goes back and forth between conservative and more radical proclivities but too often fails to resolve them. What exactly is he saying about libertarianism, for instance? This is an important question and should be tackled head on. Pitcher seems to teeter back and forth between admiration for the libertarian approach, indicating that the version of libertarianism espoused by assisted-suicide advocates is ultimately false, and blaming libertarianism for the campaign in the first place.

Laudably, Pitcher rejects the equivalences drawn between abortion and assisted suicide, a rarity in faith-based attacks on assisted suicide. But frustratingly – perhaps for fear of alienating many on his side – he draws back from this point. This is a constant feature of this book: interesting ideas worth developing are raised and then not sufficiently explained or drawn out.

Pitcher will not convince many proponents of assisted suicide, particularly not in the apparently tangential sections where he discusses competing conceptions of God. But this book is peppered with enough sharp and cogent observations that they should at least read it. This priest is not simply preaching to the converted; he is clearly struggling with, and constantly reconsidering, his own ideas.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

A Time to Live: The Cases Against Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, by George Pitcher, is published by Monarch Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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