Protecting the Vulnerable
Posted September 28, 2015on:
Rarely do we hear good news coming out of the United Kingdom. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive two bits of good news in the month of September. The first was the decisive rejection by the House of Commons of the Assisted Suicide Bill which, if passed, would have turned British physicians into professionals who kill their patients rather than caring for them. The second piece of welcome news was the election of the veteran politician Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party (and, therefore, of Her Majesty’s Opposition) against all the smug predictions of political soothsayers.
Arguments for assisted suicide stem from shallow views of individual autonomy and compassion. Compassion is an ambiguous concept, and it has been used in history (e.g. by Nazi doctors) to justify horrendous crimes against people not thought fully human. It is thus not morally admirable when divorced from other moral considerations.
The problems with invoking compassion to justify assisted suicide and euthanasia are, at least, threefold: (a) It can justify the killing not only of terminally ill patients, but of anybody suffering what they regard as “unbearable pain”, psychological as well as physical; (b) It ignores the advances in and availability of palliative care and undermines the quest for more public funding for such care (the Hospice movement was pioneered by Christian healthcare professionals who demonstrated practically how it was not necessary to kill the patient in order to kill the pain!); and (c) Why not, out of compassion, end the lives of all severely disabled babies and adults, who will never function to their full potential, even if they do not suffer pain- because they drain public resources from those who are thwarted in their personal ambitions by a lack of the latter?
For these reasons, compassion is always subservient to patient autonomy in the more sophisticated arguments for assisted suicide. Indeed, the patient’s autonomy now seems to be the only moral value that is taught in courses on medical ethics. It rests on an unreal conception of the human person, as if we were isolated monads choosing to enter into relationships rather than being constituted as persons through relationships which, for the most part, are not chosen but given. It ignores not only our human inter-dependencies, but also the way our so-called free choices and desires are themselves shaped, indeed manipulated, by social, cultural, political and economic forces of which we are only dimly aware. (Why else would business corporations spend billions of dollars on TV advertisements?).
Thus, by focusing on the individual’s expressed desire, to the exclusion of all other considerations – not least the impact on the medical profession itself- arguments in favour of assisted suicide perpetuate views of the human person that will be destructive of other areas of society in which respect for human life has hitherto been taken for granted.
Assisted suicide is being pushed in the media by a highly vocal, secular liberal elite. As John Wyatt, a paediatrician and medical ethicist, counters in his book The Right to Die? (to be published in the UK in November): “It is surely reasonable that the autonomous desire of a small number of resolute, vocal and determined individuals to have a legal and medically supervised means of killing themselves may have to be curtailed if it exposes large numbers of vulnerable people to the risk of lethal harm. The individual autonomy of a few cannot and must not trump all other considerations.”
Curiously, compassion for the helpless victims of government economic policy is absent in the political discourse of the same social elites. This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election should be greeted by all who care deeply about the absence of compassion – and indeed justice – in British public life. He is an old-style socialist, committed to returning Labour to its roots (interestingly, among the founders of the Labour Party were several devout Methodist laymen). He has promised a more inclusive way of doing politics, giving a greater voice to those who didn’t vote in the last General Elections, particularly young people and working-class Labour supporters who felt alienated by the identical agendas that all political parties were offering.
One does not have to agree with all his stated political or economic beliefs (I certainly don’t) in order to welcome his intention to tackle the obscene levels of income and wealth inequality in Britain. Such inequalities, long ignored by most mainstream economists, not only widen the gulf in educational and job opportunities but also undermine the solidarity of citizens in a democracy.
Corbyn has thus opened up a space for the return of political ideas and serious political debate in Britain. The news media have joined parliament in turning their backs on the poor, and failed to expose the hypocrisy and double standards surrounding human rights that has been practised by successive British governments (the latest instance of which is the way corrupt Chinese tycoons are being wooed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer while refugees are shut out, and jailed Chinese dissidents and the people of Hong Kong and Tibet are ignored). Let’s see if Corbyn delivers. And if the media will rise to the challenge of addressing the moral issues at the heart of politics.