Sullivan spots Douglas Noble and Iain Brassington debating Assisted suicide after the UK Commission on Assisted Dying issued its report on the subject. Noble thinks he’s “pin-pointed a weakness in the case for assisted suicide:”
In political terms [assisted suicide] is a dead duck – so why the continual fascination by a minority of vocal campaigners? The answers are complex. Perhaps, though, it is ultimately because of an inability to accept that suffering is an integral part of our world, common to all who share the human condition. Dealing a fatal injection and dressing it up as dignity is not a solution to suffering and pain. High quality palliative care is part of the answer, but so too is the effect of the affection, love, and commitment (sometimes over long periods of time) that we can show to one another when the worst hand is dealt.
[T]he real oddity is the idea that “suffering is an integral part of our world, common to all who share the human condition”. For one thing, I’m not suffering now, and if I never suffer at any point in the future, that’s just fine by me. This doesn’t mean that I’m missing out from some part of “the human condition” (whatever that might be), or that I wish to be less than human. Maybe he means the potential to suffer – but, again, there’s no obvious reason why this should strike anyone as a good thing. Besides: someone who wants their life to end because they’re suffering is someone who is plainly pretty much OK with the idea of opting out of the human condition wholesale.
Frankly, Noble’s entire piece is one giant glaring Is-Ought Fallacy. Brassington gets it right later in his piece:
[W]hatever one thinks of these statements about the human condition (and, to be honest, they always strike me as being a bit… well… jazz poetry), it’s plain that “suffering is part of the human condition therefore assisted dying ought to be resisted” is a painful non sequitur – yet it’s pretty much what the suggestion here boils down to.
Precisely. And notwithstanding this, how can Noble possibly be the judge of whether someone’s suffering is or is not sufficient to justify intervention? Have you ever seen what a wasting AIDS patient looks like in their final days? An irredeemably cancer-ridden person’s mangled, amputated body? An Alzheimer’s patient whose become so unresponsive that they literally are not there? Who would want to put their children and/or loved ones through this sort of suffering, much less endure it themselves? Noble’s paean that “suffering is part of the human condition” is cold comfort to the irredeemably afflicted. Respecting the dignity of human life means having regard for those whose suffering and quality of life has become so wretched that they are justifiably allowed to decide when to end it.
Noble’s presumptive bi-fold declaration that, 1) suffering is part of the human condition & should be embraced, and 2) the correct answer involves Palliative care and lots of happy-time fun-love from friends and relatives is a subjective value judgment which he has no sound basis to apply to any individual case. His argument tells us more about how it makes him feel to watch people confront incurable suffering, and find solace in relieving themselves and their families from the affirmatively-stricken bondage of their mortal coil, rather than extending what will probably be an expensive, burdensome period of suffering with extremely low quality of life, whose expense very likely could be borne in some way by your surviving loved ones.
It is not unreasonable under these circumstances for a person to conclude that this cornucopia of burdens, pain and suffering, with no appeal to any meaningful relief, is so unbearable that it amounts to the conclusion of their useful life. Not everyone will come to this conclusion, and indeed, most don’t. But those who do deserve to have their wishes respected. Nobody is in a better position to make this evaluation than the afflicted, in counsel with their loved ones and trusted confidants.
Some people might feel hesitation about the above observation. Indeed, the strongest argument against assisted suicide is that people may request it in potentially temporary moments of immense despair, and we risk cutting short the life of a person who might’ve lived, and perhaps even come to live well, if only temporarily. But that’s not an argument against legalizing assisted suicide. It’s an argument against helping depressed people kill themselves. I know of very few advocates for assisted suicide who think we should be in the business of “taking all comers,” so to speak. There’s room for, and indeed need for, legal restrictions on the availability of assisted suicide.
But the fact remains that when we talk about Assisted Suicide, we are generally not talking about people who are merely severely depressed, and for whom the hope of rehabilitation and meaningful thriving remains. We are talking about people for whom there’s no going back. We are talking about people who have become so afflicted by unrelievable medical circumstances that allowing them to decide whether to continue on with the Grand Experiment of life becomes a moral and humane obligation.
Many people in these tragic circumstances find reason to keep the counsel of material trappings. Good on them. The point remains that this decision is theirs alone to make, and society should not stand between the tragically-afflicted and whatever metaphysical transubstantiation they think awaits them, if their condition is so physically and psychologically burdensome that releasing themselves from the material embrace of their biological situation would grant them a reprieve which the human condition can no longer afford them.
Giving people the freedom to make this decision for themselves shows far more respect for human dignity than the pretense of prolonging lives of those who have suffered long and unabated under the deleterious effects of a terminal illness, or beset by the yoke of a tragically extreme affliction so wretched that it robs one’s life of its natural quality. Taking that choice away from someone smacks of an intolerably selfish appeal to paternalism; it is an attempt to vindicate the personal feelings of people (like Noble) who have come to conclusive presumptions about the inherent sanctity of life, and would rather appeal to those presumptions than respect the feelings of the people who actually have to bear the burdens of the restrictions Noble et al. would place on them (and indeed, all of us) in our time of dying.
If human dignity means anything, it means acknowledging, with humility, that the pain and suffering people endure when terminally or irredeemably afflicted is multifarious and unique to to each individual circumstance. To the extent that we worry about prematurely granting mortality wishes, regulation is certainly appropriate. But outright bans on assisted suicide are closer to misguided cruelty than enlightened benevolence.