Monday, October 10, 2005

Lords line up to debate right to die

The libertarian position on this should be clear enough. It's your life. If you want to die that's up to you. However, you cannot compel anyone else to kill you or assist you to die.

The problems are also clear enough. If euthanasia or assisted suicide is permitted, it will often be faked so that people can inherit wealth or be rid of a burden. The law should protect the weak by requiring a clear written expression of will in the presence of an independent witness. Relatives will disagree and the document will be important in any subsequent litigation.

If a doctor is prepared, subject to such a clear expression of will, to provide the means for a suicide, that is probably the best solution. Assisted suicide is not the same as asking a doctor to kill, which would be a problem for many; not only on ethical grounds but because the doctor risks involvement in legal disputes.

Assisted suicide does not help those who are physically incapable even of taking pills unassisted. Nor does it help those whose condition has deteriorated until they are mentally incapable of expressing their wish to die. Again, even if a doctor can be found to carry out the killing, it should only be lawful if there is a clear legal expression of the patient's intentions, made before he became incapable. So-called "living wills" can deal with this issue.

I have no doubt that, even with all necessary legal protections, many old people will die against their will if these measures are introduced. We are all too ready to convince ourselves of the truth of things that suit us. Auntie Flo's death will seem a mercy to those who stand to inherit. No caring heir will let paperwork stand in the way. Muddled old ladies will sign unknowing. Signatures will be lovingly forged.

Baroness Warnock thinks the old have a duty to die rather than be a burden to their families. If this view gains credence, the dangers are obvious. Elderly people may feel pressured to "do the right thing" by their families. If your son is massively in debt and the costs of your care are a burden; if your daughter cannot earn to support her family because she is your carer, how will you feel if the idea of euthanasia is raised? How will the State's rules on consuming your estate to pay for your care affect your view? Will you feel pressured to die early so as to save those costs and leave more to your indebted children? Many old people are a burden to the State, rather than their offspring. It would not be long before someone argued a similar duty to the taxpayer. Voluntary euthanasia could soon become involuntary, whether because of social pressures or even legal requirements.

This is one of those issues where it's easy to devise simple rules. However, the complexities of life are such that there are bound to be unforseen outcomes. While the libertarian position is clear, any changes to the law on this subject should be made with extreme caution. The Government's usual style of "legislate today, think tomorrow" will not do. Cheap headlines about "mercy killings" and heart-rending "human interest" stories on the subject, could lead to thousands of murders.

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Lords line up to debate right to die

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