Rob Marris MP's Assisted Dying Bill will be debated in the House of Commons on Friday 11th September 2015. There are people with good intentions on both side of the debate and it's natural to think that little divides the two sides. However, this Bill is both wrong and dangerous; if enacted it will mark a serious moral decline.
Confucius said "when words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom" and one of the most worrying aspects of the Bill is the way in which it indulges in euphemism to disguise the reality of what is at stake. For instance, its title is misleading. If I cried out "Please, I'm dying, help me!" I would pretty shocked if you were to give me assistance by killing me. Dying is something we all do, without assistance. To kill yourself is called suicide and Assisted Suicide would have been a more honest title for the bill.
Of course, it is a nostrum of liberalism that "It's my life and I can do what I want to with it." However you do not have a right to commit suicide. By killing yourself you are rejecting your place in the world and all the rights that exists to safeguard and support you. A decent society respects the person by rejecting any supposed 'right to suicide'. If you want to kill yourself then it must be because you believe your life is worthless; but it is our role to disagree with you and to say instead:
"You're wrong, you do have value, and we will value and respect you."
Assisting suicide means ignoring the fundamental moral truth that every human being, at every stage of life, has value, even when the person themselves doesn't recognise that truth.
In a decent society we do not encourage suicide, instead we try to understand what might drive someone to this extreme. And we can imagine why you might think life has no value when you find you have a terminal illness. You might fear pain or the loss of dignity that can come with institutionalisation. But these are both soluble problems if people get good palliative care and personalised support. Innovations like personal health budgets can help people to live their last days with peace and dignity. You may also fear physical or mental deterioration, in other words, you may fear disability. But as many disabled people, including people with intellectual disabilities, will show you, disability is just a natural part of life - not some form of sub-human existence.
These are the unspoken fears that stalk the Assisted Dying Bill. Normally a desire to commit suicide is treated as a sign of mental illness, but the Assisted Dying Bill treats it as a rational option, and implies that disability or illness is a fate worse than death.
Even more worryingly, many people will seek to extend this legislation further, once they realise that it actually excludes people who have dementia, intellectual disabilities or other cognitive impairments. Certainly history suggests that assisted suicide is seen as the first step towards the killing of people with disabilities. For instance, in 1939 the German Ministry of Justice Commission on the Reform of the Criminal Code proposed new rules on 'mercy killing.'
"Clause 1 Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to him or others, can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor.
"Clause 2 The life of a person who because of incurable mental illness requires permanent institutionalisation and is not able to sustain an independent existence, may be prematurely terminated by medical procedures in a painless and covert manner."
In fact, as demonstrated by Suzanne E Evans in her book Forgotten Crimes: the Holocaust and people with disabilities, doctors and Nazi leaders conspired to develop an ambitious euthanasia and eugenics programme, which led to the murder of over 250,000 people with disabilities or mental health problems. These were not people who wanted to die, but their lives were deemed worthless by German doctors; and these murders continued even after Hitler had officially ended the programme on 24th August 1941.
How confident are we that we won't also be tempted to take this next step? Eugenic policies in the 1920s were fired by a base fear of refugees, disabled people and the poor; these policies were supported by respectable politicians on the left and right. As I have argued in The Unmaking of Man, the conditions that led to eugenics in the past are with us still today; but now we have even more powerful technologies to help us "terminate" or reshape humanity.
The Assisted Dying Bill is a significant step backwards. When we strip away its euphemisms it is a law to help people who are frightened of pain or disability to achieve a quicker end to their life, with the support of a doctor. It undermines our respect for human life, encourages a disrespectful attitude to people with disabilities and fundamentally changes the role of the doctor. MPs who care about the real issues should instead develop positive legislation to support everybody to live with dignity, until the end of their natural life.