Set in the context of a lone individual who is suffering the final stages of a debilitating illness, the offer of an assisted death can be seen as the alleviation of misery, and therefore as a good idea. Yet this notion is subverted if you take a wider view of society and of different forms of misery. Pain causes misery, but so to does fear.
In earlier posts I talked about us all living a shared life and I said that your kin are who you say they are. This is the fulcrum on which the balance of misery rests. A choice that alleviates one person’s misery can lead to an increase in the suffering of others, and to such an extent that the overall level of suffering in our society can rise. None of this is easy or comforting to anyone suffering from a debilitating condition, and in such circumstances it is difficult to hear that public policy should be set in accordance with what is best for the many rather than the few, but it remains the only credible basis on which any society can function.
The number of vulnerable, disabled, frail, and damaged people in our society is far greater than those living with a specific debilitating condition or a terminal illness. This larger group is the recipient of the fear created when legislation is passed that permits assisted death to be prescribed as a medical treatment. Their fear is as miserable to them as any physical pain could ever be, and we should all be mindful of it because they are our kin.
Those who advocate the legalisation of assisted dying might talk about safeguards that will ensure only a select group who satisfy strict criteria would be eligible for an assisted death, so everything will be fine because there is no slippery slope to worry about. This overlooks what has happened in The Netherlands and Belgium since legislation was passed to allow assisted dying there.
The slippery slope is real. Any legislation may well start out as strict and rigid, but it will soon be eroded by small concessions made by legislators to lobby groups and by precedents set by judges in response to cases brought by individuals. Inexorably, the criteria will be expanded to include those just outside the legal limits, and this will lead to an increase in the numbers who fall within the remit of an assisted death. Once the individual challenges begin, this expansion of scope cannot be avoided, and no one can credibly deny this will occur, because each step will involve a determined individual with a heartbreaking story against a seemingly uncaring legal framework. A passionate argument can provoke a compassionate response from a judge who is looking directly at the personal suffering of a fellow human being.
No one can fail to be moved by the plight of those whose lives are curtailed by a chronic condition, or who are suffering the latter stages of a terminal illness, but the setting of public policy requires a wider view of all the misery involved, both of the vocal few and the silent many. How we balance this depends on who we choose to include as our kin when we make our choices.