Many families can identify with the suffering experienced by Barbara and Jenny Grainger. They none-the-less find the legalisation of assisted suicide a chilling prospect since this would downgrade the value the State places on the lives of many vulnerable groups. It would affect not only the terminally ill but also the disabled, those with long-term conditions and accident victims with a brain or spinal injury.
The assisted suicide debate usually focuses on the terminally ill who want to die, but where it has been legalised, in Switzerland for example, it has quickly moved on to take the lives of the chronically ill and even the depressed. In the Netherlands the Groningen protocol permits the routine killing of newborn babies with spina bifida. None of these children, and many of the adult victims of the Dutch euthanasia law, ever expressed the wish to die, doctors simply thought they would be better off dead.
Many in the ‘right to die’ campaign already call for various groups to be helped to die. In Australia campaigners encourage troubled teenagers to take their own lives. In Britain some argue that Alzheimer’s patients no longer have the right to life. Their minds have gone, we are told, they are merely vegetables. When human beings are called vegetables or compared to dogs we ought to be worried. We only need to look at where such thinking has led in the past. Under the German euthanasia programme disabled children were called “useless bread gobblers.” Doctors argued that the money saved by killing them would be better spent elsewhere.
Some people are motivated by the desire to end the suffering of someone they love. But bureaucracies and health systems don’t share this motivation because all problems are seen in terms of a cost/benefit analysis. Can anyone doubt that given the opportunity, some sections of the NHS wouldn’t try to save money spent on patients they refer to as “coffin dodgers”?
Soon the right to die would become the duty to die. The elderly and dependant would be made to feel a burden on their family and the State. And while the potential for abuse by greedy or uncaring relatives is obvious, the safeguards proposed by campaigners have not been worth the paper they’ve been printed on.
And not everyone who talks about suicide really wants to die. It is often a cry for help. The vulnerable and the sick need support and reassurance that they will not suffer alone. It is sometimes difficult for families to give this support so there is a duty on society to provide it. The compassionate response to suffering is not to encourage suicide but to offer the palliative care and psychological support the sick need to help them live with dignity.