Polly Toynbee: The right to die in peace will be hard fought because of unfounded fears of a ‘slippery slope’, but we need to change the law
For the generation that won on abortion, contraception and gay liberation, the principle was always the right to do what you like with your own body – and that includes a right to die in peace. All these freedoms were won in the face of ferocious opposition from the same hell-in-a-handcart brigade. I had thought all minds were made up, ideological battle lines uncrossable, so Lord Carey, former evangelical archbishop, is a most unlikely and thus especially welcome convert to the assisted dying cause. Archbishop Tutu’s eloquent abhorrence at Nelson Mandela’s last days offers a perfect example of why dignity in death is an essential part of a good life.
The arrival of these Christian leaders, both well experienced in death-bed scenes, breaks the notion that life is sacred and only God can dispose of us in his own good time. But that still guides the current archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the Catholics and other faiths that pack the Lords in greater numbers than among the public. How odd that many Catholics pray to St Joseph for a good death, and yet deny it to themselves. Scrape below the surface and you will see during Friday’s debate that almost all speaking against this freedom are religious, but they will shroud faith reasons behind other arguments.
Those, like me, who have watched a parent die too slowly and painfully, yearning for a quicker end, would want to escape that fate ourselves, making our choice, in our own good time. Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic is a grim way to go, yet one Briton each fortnight takes that lonely route for fear of an agonising death here. The myth of the good death on morphine needs to be exposed: there is no dreamy drifting away. Hallucinations can be terrifying and months of extreme and humiliating constipation bring a death not focused on eternities, but on the bowels. Nor do opioids necessarily relieve, let alone remove severe pain. None of us knows until the time comes what pain we can withstand, what value we will place on our last days of life or if we want to end it sooner. But 80% of people wisely say they want that choice, according to polls over many years.
Of all the bad arguments, the most common is the infamous "slippery slope", warning this will lead to extermination of all imperfect or inconvenient human beings. Let the dying depart a few months before the end and gas chambers for the feeble minded will follow. Greedy relatives will press the potion on their parents, eager for the inheritance or just to be rid of the muddles and puddles of the decrepit. The "slippery slope" imbues all moral panic arguments – do this, and other direst consequences follow, as night does day. Slippery slopes have the left accusing any act on the right as the path to fascism or the right claiming anything social democratic leads down the road to Stalinism. We all stand on slippery slopes, if the alternative is to stand at an extreme at either end. But law exists as perpetual arbitrator of slippery slopes – thus far and no further – in every aspect of life, defining, refining, grading degrees of acceptability in a world of shifting greys.
This bill slips down no slopes, as Lord Falconer’s safeguards are solid. Two doctors, acting independently, must confirm a patient is likely to die within six months, is of sound mind, has decided without pressure, is told of palliative options and is able to take the medication themselves, after a cooling-off period of reflection. A sunset clause means the law is repealed in 10 years, requiring parliament to vote it in again. How often will it be used? After 17 years of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act 80 people out of 30,000 deaths used it last year. Peace of mind is knowing you can.
If ever parliament wanted to extend the right to die to those such as quadriplegic Tony Nicklinson, then that debate will be had. I would favour it, others wouldn’t, but it’s a new discussion on another law, not a slippery slide. Eventually, my guess is that law would be passed too, because again it has overwhelming public support. But that’s no reason to refuse the Falconer bill.
Another bad argument is that the frail will be intimidated into hastening the end of their lives so as not to be a burden on their children. Well, why not? I would not choose to put unbearable caring duties on my four children. I hope not to leave them with a miserable memory of a wretched prolonged and agonising end. That’s not a bad reason.
Finally, opponents say the right to die is a dangerous substitute for good care, but that’s disingenuous. I’ve worked in an old people’s home and visited dementia wards where no one wants to be. Blame the lack of money or care, do better – but in truth, what saddens most is the wretched condition of the people themselves, often openly asking for death.
A high proportion of NHS costs are spent on the last six months of life – and badly spent. Aversion to facing the inevitability of death is expensive and rarely conducive to ensuring people die well. I think I am not overly afraid of dying, but I won’t know until I get there. What I do know is that I greatly fear departing through the torture chamber.
Today yet more distinguished doctors write to members of the House of Lords in support of the bill: polls find more doctors want the right to die for themselves than don’t. On this bill more peers have requested to speak than on any bill ever. If opponents think they have the numbers, they’ll push for a vote on a wrecking amendment, a delay with an imaginary royal commission. If not, it will pass the Lords by December, when it is for the government to find time in the Commons – of which snowballs have a better chance in hell. MPs are afraid of the religious in their constituencies before the election – even though no seat was ever won or lost on these moral issues. Falconer’s hope is that parties will at least put a promise of a Commons vote in their manifestos, but parliament has always trailed far behind the public on moral matters. This craven cowardice is one reason politicians are so despised.