Sunday, 14 December 2008

The 'plane now leaving is for Dignitas

It is a criminal offence to 'aid, abet, counsel or procure' someone else's suicide. But last week the Director of Public Prosecutions said there would be no charges against the parents of Daniel James, who accompanied their son earlier this year to a clinic in Switzerland where, with assistance, he ended his life.

Also last week a TV documentary showed the last moments in the life of Craig Ewert. In 2006 he too had travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, supported by his wife, to kill himself.

The two cases are very different, not least because one of them was broadcast to the nation. Mr Ewert was 59 years old and terminally ill. Mr James, while tetraplegic, had, at 23, many years of life ahead of him. It was the diminished quality of that life that he could not bear.

To those who believe the ability to take one's own life is an inalienable right, such circumstantial differences hardly matter. The fact that assistance was required is purely technical. But the technical fact of assistance inevitably raises a unique set of ethical and legal quandaries.

Even if it is accepted that, in certain circumstances, mercy demands that a life of terrible suffering end, it is extraordinarily hard to envisage a law that effectively gives one person licence to kill another. How, for example, could such a law establish whether a person dying was of fully sound mind, or that their medical prognosis was so accurate that they could truly deduce there was no hope of recovery? How might the law reasonably investigate the motives of the person assisting the suicide, or of the doctor facilitating it?

Fear of the awesome complexity of those questions, and the passions they arouse, has stopped governments from heeding repeated calls by campaigners and some MPs for a new legal framework. But the fact that Parliament has failed to resolve this issue does not mean it will go away. Instead, the arguments will be played out in the media until political action becomes inevitable.

In surveys, at least 80 per cent of the population say assisted suicide should be legalised. To some extent, the precedent of the DPP's judgement on the Daniel James case has partially done that - but only for those who can afford to travel abroad.

The government must anticipate the need for a new law and establish a commission of enquiry to recommend what it should be. Otherwise, while the issues continue to be debated in the media, cases will come to court and conflicting precedents set on the basis of particular circumstances. But justice requires that, on such a difficult ethical question, the law be based on universal principles. The proper place to establish those principles is Parliament.

My own attitude is very clear. If, as and when I deem I wish to follow these two, my options should be no more limited than they are now. I really do not care where the suicide suite is in geographic terms "Go to the ends of the Earth" etc. etc" Obviously, if I need aid to get me there, it should be lawful for someone to accompany me. Any documentation should also be completed by another if needed.

The red herrings of external compulsion being used does not apply to me; I have next to no assets or enemies of sufficient determination to wish to kill me. I have the same scant regard for those who advance the religion case. I have never bothered God, or any 'Superior' being, so why should we be introduced to each other at the end of my present life here on Earth?

These attitudes are selfishly personal and I can quite accept the difficulty that would arise to draft legislation. Fine - leave things as they are now. If that debars me getting the assistance I need to get to Dignitas or some other "Exit Gateway" just balance me at the kerb of a busy road.

Just to clarify - I have no current intent to off myself. I just want to make provision now when I have some ability to make myself clear rather than wait until I have to communicate by flickering eyelashes.

Anyway - cheer up. At least I've been spared this sort of card!


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