When I die, and if I have to arrange it myself, I will consult nobody, and do it unassisted if I can. I entertain not a flicker of moral or practical doubt on the subject, and never have. Speaking only for myself — in such matters one should never judge for others — if Nature does not do the job in a timely manner I shall consider it a duty to take matters into my own hands. For me it would be wretched, self-defeating, selfish, irrational, inefficient and pointlessly extravagant to live beyond the time when I am useful, or life is fun.
I can’t tell you how simple I find these arguments: so simple that I’ve hardly bothered to write about the issue. Suicide is the greatest of human freedoms, underwriting all the others, for it gives us the possibility of defying every thing and every one there is. The possibility of suicide is what makes life voluntary and each new day an act of will. No wonder the faith community gnash their teeth at suicide. God Himself, if He existed, would gnash His teeth at suicide: the supreme act of defiance, the final raspberry. The knowledge that I’m here by choice, that every breath I take I take by choice, injects into my soul a transcendent joy. That we can let go whenever we want is for me the deepest sort of thrill.
People should be able to choose. Obviously. And if they choose the end but seek help with the means, they should be able to. Obviously. End of argument.
But there’s a second reason I’ve hesitated to wade into the debate about assisted suicide. It is that, given the instincts just described, I would expect myself to support legal reform without reservation, yet find I cannot. Not quite.
It is of course outrageous that the friends, partners or even family doctors of suffering and terminally ill people seeking suicide should ever be successfully prosecuted for helping them in good faith. My reservation is this: an Assisted Suicide Act could be the beginning of a creep towards the state regulation of death. We who respect the individual’s right to die should retain a small but insistent libertarian doubt about the bringing of order to a corner of human behaviour where, at present, something closer to anarchy reigns.
The road not to go down is Scotland’s. The Scottish Parliament is considering a Bill drafted by the MSP Margo MacDonald. This requires anyone considering an assisted suicide to sign a prescribed legal declaration while still mentally fit. If they later go ahead, their mental state will then have to be assessed first in a formal psychiatric examination to ensure that they are not simply depressed. There will inevitably be a requirement for official certification; and for those who might assist in the suicide to be themselves officially approved for the task.
The Scottish mind seems to have a leaning towards dirigism and codification. This summer another Scot, Lord Falconer of Thoroton (the former Lord Chancellor) put down an amendment to an English measure, the Coroners and Criminal Justice Bill. It involved certification “by two registered medical practitioners, independent of each other” that a patient was “terminally ill and has the capacity to make a declaration” which was itself to be independently witnessed, the witnesses being neither close friends nor relations.
But Scotland does not have, as in England we do, the common law tradition that allows rules to develop organically by precedent and interpretation. This leaves greater scope for discretion — for the exercise, as it were, of the judicial eyebrow.
Let me offer an example. Physically to attack or kill another person is, on the face of it, criminal behaviour. However in statute and — more importantly — in common law, “self-defence” (or the defence of another) may, if reasonable, be a complete defence against the charge. Among the judicial utterances serving as precedents for this, glance at Lord Parker’s in 1963:
“. . . where a forcible and violent felony is attempted upon the person of another, the party assaulted, or his servant, or any other person present, is entitled to repel force by force, and, if necessary, to kill the aggressor . . .”.
Of course it all depends on what’s reasonable — but that is left to judge and jury.
Surely this is the better model for any reform of our assisted suicide laws. We should leave the general crime in place, but reinforce the defences to a charge under it. They would be designed so that if you helped somebody to kill himself but there was powerful evidence you had acted in good faith; that the patient had made it clear it was his settled wish to die; and that you had taken all reasonable steps to ascertain that his life was unbearable and his illness terminal; then you would have a legitimate defence against the charge. In such circumstances the Crown Prosecution Service would be highly unlikely to prosecute.
We might in English statute offer a broadbrush definition of a defence along such lines, then leave it to the courts, and in the end to precedent, to interpret terms such as “good faith”, “settled”, “all reasonable steps”, “unbearable” and “terminal”.
The alternative is a system of certification, underwritten and probably conducted by the State. It will amount to a framework for an Authority to Die and will lead, inexorably I believe, to the designation and appointment of persons fit and qualified to assist in killing. In time we will be no more allowed to kill ourselves privately with help from someone we love than serve our own cheese made at home from the milk of our own cow: only through the medium of a state-designated authority will the death, or the cheese, be permitted to be procured.
From Authority to Die, it may be a large practical step to Authority to Live: but not, I believe, quite such a large philosophical step as some may suppose — especially where that prolonged life depends utterly upon substantial state funds which, channelled differently, could save many other lives.
It is one thing for the State to decline, at its discretion, to prosecute someone who has killed without authority. It is quite another thing for the State to issue an authority to kill. We do best, I think, to stay on that first, more limited, ground.
It may be messier, it may be cloudier; but it’s philosophically less dangerous.