An extraordinary poll published by the British Humanist Association (BHA) highlights the public ambivalence about assisted suicide and euthanasia. In conjunction with other recent surveys, it shows that more people are in favour of the law allowing the killing of relatively healthy patients like Tony Nicklinson than of those who are terminally ill.
The "respectable" wing of the assisted dying movement, Dignity in Dying, wants a very limited right to medically assisted suicide: only people who are terminally ill and in full possession of their faculties would qualify. Even this limited position is hugely controversial.
But the BHA believes that doctors should be allowed to help kill anyone who really wants to die and who cannot manage for themselves. This applies explicitly to perfectly healthy people as well as the terminally ill. And it ...view middle of the document...
I certainly do. But that doesn't make it any less attractive. It speaks to a rather gnostic idea of our being free spirits trapped in gross bodies, which is why someone like Nicklinson made such a powerful figure: his mind was unaffected but his body was ruined.
Yet in practice we do know that no one is like that, and certainly no one is like that all the time. Nicklinson's reasoning powers may have been entirely unimpaired by his illness, and may even have been sharpened by it. But a mind is much more than the sum of its reasoning powers. The condition of his body furnished the contents of his mind, and the material he had to reason on.
Just as important was the attitude of his family and those around him. I don't want to suggest for a moment that they were actuated by anything but love and the desire to help him realise the end he wanted for his life. The point, however, is that their decision and their support were very important. Had they opposed his wishes he would hardly have got anywhere.
And, of course, families often do disagree about what's best for a family member. In almost all normal circumstances, the ideal of autonomy comes up very sharply against the reality of interdependence, and sometimes straightforward dependence.
That is why people are – quite rightly – suspicious of the apparently more limited programme of allowing doctors to kill off the terminally ill who are clear that they want to die because their life offers nothing more than suffering.
Those who stand to benefit from someone's death are very likely, sincerely, to see the life they want to end as hardly worth living. This is a nasty fact about human nature, but any kind of humanism that isn't grounded in human nature is no more than ludicrous and sinister self-deception. Our propensity to self-serving self-deception is one reason why Christians must insist that God loves every one of his creatures; no one except God does or could.