A matter of life and death


After last month’s aborted Cork University Hospital debate on euthanasia, Matthew Gregg wonders whether or not we are simply doing ourselves a disservice by refusing to discuss the issue.

Do we have the right to choose when we die? Our right to free speech gives us the right to bite our tongues. Our right to vote does not prevent us abstaining. So does the right to life grant us an equal right to death?

Life in our society places great emphasis on the creation of opportunities rather than the enforcement of outcomes. Freedom of choice is a value we, quite rightly, cherish. And yet, when it comes to assisted suicide, we often appear unwillingly to even discuss the issue let alone make it available to those who wish to follow that path.

This was, unfortunately, made abundantly clear last month when a debate at Cork University Hospital chaired by a proponent of euthanasia had to be called off after over a hundred protesters picketed the hospital and heckled Professor Len Doyal as he took the stage.

It is a moral dilemma, much like abortion, that never fails to result in flared emotions and heated debate. None of us can avoid our own mortality forever yet we never wish to contemplate it for too long. Avoiding death is a key part of life. This makes dealing with euthanasia, a concept akin to legalised killing, particularly troublesome.

However, organisations, primarily the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland, have increasingly placed euthanasia in the gaze and grasp of the public. It is no longer uncommon for Irish or British citizens to avail themselves of the services provided by several continental countries where laws concerning euthanasia are more relaxed.

As uncomfortable as the idea of euthanasia may make us, it is important to understand the rationale that has led to over a hundred Britons being assisted by the Dignitas Clinic since it opened in 1998.

“Does the right to life grant us an equal right to death?”

For many, there is a belief that euthanasia is a charitable act and presents a relief from unbearable pain that often accompanies terminal illnesses. This is certainly the case for John Humphreys, presenter of BBC 4’s Today show. In the aftermath of his father’s passing he has released a book on the subject, in which he explained that those last years of his father’s life were a living hell from which his father should have been spared.

For Ludwig Minelli, founder of Dignitas and prominent human rights lawyer, there is a more objective reason why euthanasia should be allowed. It is based on the concept that we own our bodies which should therefore allow us to determine the time, manner and method of our death. Minelli has labelled access to euthanasia “a basic human right” and has recently admitted that he has no qualms extending this right to perfectly healthy people.

On the other hand, we all share the protesters’ moral objection to killing another human being and the person’s wish to die does not alter this. Life is something we, as humans, value highest and we naturally disapprove of methods that seek to terminate life prematurely.

Additionally, the point that legalised euthanasia could lead to a change in the way we perceive doctors is valid. “Euthanasia undermines the relationship between patients and those in the medical profession,” the Bishop of Cork explained. This issue is particularly pertinent in relation to the more vulnerable members of society, such as the elderly or the psychologically unstable, as it could make them fearful of those best suited to help them.

And in the middle ground between these positions, there are those who accept that the issue may never be capable of unanimous resolution. The matter is just too personal and each individual must make up their mind for themselves. But for this to happen we must be far more open on the subject. We need to be able to talk about the issue, not suppress it.

The demonstrators at Cork University Hospital have done nothing to prove euthanasia immoral by heckling Professor Doyal. To paraphrase the liberal thinker John Stewart Mills, if you believe your arguments are right and your opponent’s arguments are wrong it can do your cause no harm to debate with him. If your opponent truly is wrong, he will be found out. If he is right or partially right, you will both benefit.

One thing is for sure; this issue is far from dead.