Earlier this week Jenni Murray, a BBC radio 4 presenter, made plans with three friends to assist each other to die if any of them is diagnosed with a debilitating and incurable disease or disorder. Assisted suicide is illegal in Britain, so this certainly raises interesting points. And, of course the topic is of immense importance for libertarians who wish to champion the right of people to live their lives as free from government interference as possible. Why shouldn’t euthanasia be an option for people in a free and civilised society?

If I am ever unfortunate enough to end up with some horrendous condition like motor neurone disease then I suspect that I would not wish to continue living in such a state for very long. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps one day I’ll find myself confined to a wheelchair thinking that slurred speech, inactive muscles, and pissing myself ten times a day is actually quite a fulfilling way to live. But for now I doubt that this would be the case. In the event that I end up in a wheelchair in a dreadful condition I would like to know that someone would be there to stick a needle in my arse, hold a pillow over my head, throw me off a cliff, or boil me oil. Just end it. Please. And I can’t imagine anything worse than being left in a position unable to help myself and surrounded by hoards of wankers babbling away in my left ear about respect for life while a host of pious dick-brains whisper platitudes in my right ear about perseverance in the face of life’s difficulties, and other such bollocks. Well meaning folks, perhaps; wankers and dick-brains nonetheless. In such an instance it would be MY life that is being discussed, and MY difficulties and suffering under consideration. I certainly don’t mean to sound arrogant but I judge myself to be the world’s leading expert on all matters relating to my quality of life, feelings and inner conscious states. My life is precisely that – mine. Not yours. Not society’s. Not government’s. M-I-N-E. If I no longer wish to live and someone is willing to assist me in dying then there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for government to prevent my death, and thus force me to continue living.

And yet some folks disagree. The British Medical Association regularly debate the issue and are bitterly divided on the matter. On the “anti” side Dr. Jane Orr states that: “Nobody has a right to be killed by a doctor. It would undermine patient autonomy. It is morally wrong and contrary to the codes of medical ethics. Let us, as healthcare professionals, get on with the task of working to get a genuinely gentle and easy death that all patients deserve.”

Dr Orr’s position is a jumble of confused thinking. I partially agree with her first statement – but it depends on what is meant by “right.” These days rights are normally taken to be things which we can properly demand from government. If this is what Dr Orr means then I agree – nobody has a right to be killed by a doctor. Obviously if a patient wishes to die and no doctor is willing to help then the patient has no right to have a doctor forced by government to perform the deed. However, just because there is no right (in this sense) to be killed by a doctor doesn’t mean that doctors shouldn’t be permitted to assist a terminally ill person to die. A much better conception of rights is to see them as things with which government cannot justifiably interfere. For instance, we all have a right to property. This does not mean we can all demand to be given property, but it means that if we legally acquire property we cannot justifiably be deprived of it by government. On this conception of rights, if a patient wishes to die then they have a right to be killed by a doctor if they find a doctor willing to help them.

Orr’s second statement is more puzzling. How would denying patients a right to die hinder their autonomy? The issue is whether patients should have a choice. In other words, the issue is about more autonomy, not less. There is nothing remotely autonomous about being told that you must persist in what to you is an intolerable condition against your will. Amazingly Dr Orr finishes off with a nice platitude about giving patients the gentle and easy death they deserve. Quick question: which is easier: (1) being forced to live against your own will in a condition you consider to be intolerable, and dying at some later date God only knows how far away or (2) making your decision to die and getting it over with minus the excess suffering? It’s a no-brainer really. Dr Orr’s denial of a right to die is in fact nothing but a burdening of the terminally ill with a duty to suffer.

Most of those who claim euthanasia to be “morally wrong” or “unethical” generally go for one of these lines of argument: (1) euthanasia is a lack of respect for life and is thus morally wrong, and, even more common: (2) only God (or “nature”) should decide how when and how we die, and it is “unethical” to interfere with God’s plan or Nature’s Way by “playing God”.

(1) is simply a blatant falsehood. Euthanasia does not show a lack of respect for “life,” or for people. On the contrary, dictating a continuance of life to those who do not wish to live is a lack of respect for the life and autonomy of a person. No one seriously suggests trying to keep people alive for as long as possible at all costs all the time. When a person is dying there is no question of preserving life at all. The only significant question left to answer is how that person dies. It is nothing less than a denigration of the person to tell them: “As you die we’ll do everything we can to bring you back and keep you alive, regardless of how much pain you are in, how low your quality of life will be, how much you suffer, what you wish or what any member of your family think.”

(2) is a haphazard bunch of mumbo-jumbo religious or pseudo-religious gunk which seems to rely on the dubious notion that humans should stay out of making life and death decisions. Here’s the fact of the matter: every single time you swallow a paracetamol tablet you are interfering with nature. Every single time a surgeon grasps the heart of a dying cardiac patient to keep the blood pumping and ultimately save the persons life, he or she is “playing God” – interfering in a life and death matter. When paramedics come across a car accident involving numerous people they may have to decide who to help and who to leave to fate – thus “playing God.” Human beings are autonomous moral agents. In other words, we’re free to think, make decisions, act accordingly, and be responsible for so doing. If we are created by God then it seems pretty obvious that what is mockingly described as “playing God” is an essential, and divinely intended, part of human life. A pious sounding little catchphrase doesn’t eliminate the responsibility for us to make difficult decisions.

Other opponents of good euthanasia laws complain that by allowing people with certain conditions to die or be killed we are making a judgment of other people with those conditions, effectively telling them that their life is not worth living.

Proponents of this position need to grasp that their argument is a double-edged sword. If euthanasia tells people that their life is not worth living then what does denying people a choice over their own life and death tell them? Are all terminally ill and severely disabled people unable to make their own decisions? Take the shocking case of Diane Pretty. Diane Pretty was suffering from motor neurone disease, and had decided that she wanted to end her life, but needed the help of her husband, which was illegal. She spent her time campaigning for a right to die before she finally did, but not as she wished. Those, like me, who fully supported Diane Pretty were not making a general judgment about people who have motor neurone disease. It’s not as if we desire a Nazi “relocation service” to remove all disabled people from society and dispose of them in death camps. We simply supported Diane Pretty’s own rational decision and will to die. This in no way threatens any other person with the desire to live, for no one was advocating that people with motor neurone disease, or any other condition, should be killed against their will. On the contrary, we simply support the idea that people should choose for themselves.

This is nevertheless not good enough for some of the most vehement opponents of euthanasia. Some disability groups still argue that the very notion of euthanasia sends out and reinforces the message to disabled people that it’s better not to have a disability. I’m not exactly sure how to deal with this point, except to completely affirm it: it is better not to have a disability. This statement may not be politically correct in a culture that would prefer to talk about the “visually challenged” rather than the “blind,” “the physically impaired” rather than “paraplegics:” a culture obsessed with “diversity” and “equality.” However, a quick show-of-hands should convince any sceptic of the validity of what I say. If given a free choice who would choose being blind over having sight? Who would rather be quadriplegic than able to walk and move? Would anyone prefer motor neurone disease over a healthy body? How many arms would you like – one or two? Would you like feet with your legs? Fancy a snapped spinal cord? No? I didn’t think so. The sentiment that I have expressed here is the very basis of health care. If sickness, disability and ailment are on a par with physical and mental well-being then bang goes the entire medical establishment.

Mick Hume is an otherwise respectable social and political commentator. Unfortunately he appears to remove his brain when commenting on euthanasia. Labelling himself as “anti legal euthanasia”, he describes the wish to die as “morbid defeatism.” Well, there you go Ms Pretty – you’re a morbid defeatist. So says that relatively fit and healthy chap over there. Hell, it’s only motor neurone disease. I don‘t understand the fuss you‘re making. You’re not really going to be that bad off. Come on, Diane, you can do it! Persevere! Fight the good fight! There, there now, you’ll be grand, dry your eyes love. I’ll stick the kettle on and we’ll watch Eastenders with a nice cup of tea. Two sugars isn’t it?

It seems fairly obvious to me that people should be allowed to decide whether or not their life is worth continuing, even if that means ignoring the diktats of a tyrannical minority of people. Mick Hume might complain that euthanasia gives out the underlying message that death is the preferable solution for people severely incapacitated or in pain, but perhaps it actually is. My suggestion is that we let people decide for themselves rather than be dictated to by the fit and healthy. Moreover, there is an even more important message that legal euthanasia would give out: “it’s your life, make your own decisions” – a message that sounds more and more radical with every passing day of our current administration. Some people will wish to live, others would rather die. A good euthanasia bill would respect the wishes of everyone, and would be a welcome advance in reclaiming the notions of personal responsibility and individual autonomy.

Whose life is it anyway?

Stephen Graham