The Daily Mail this morning carries as its splash the news that Norman Lamb, the Care Minister, “backs the Right to Die Bill”. One should perhaps be grateful that support for this measure remains more newsworthy than opposition to it would be.
The Liberal Democrats find themselves in a desperate position, and the amiable Mr Lamb has chosen the right side of the argument if he is to make a splash. He told the paper:
“I have in the past been very opposed. I was concerned about the risk of families exploiting vulnerable relatives. But ultimately the question is whether concerns about some people seeking to exploit the situation should deny others the right to make an informed choice. I don’t think it can. The safeguards are clear and I think they are critically important. It’s essential people have confidence we really will test whether this is someone’s own and settled will. But those anxieties shouldn’t deny someone the choice to end their life in a dignified way.”
Mr Lamb was right in the past to be “very opposed”. The law has a declarative value. It should be in favour of life, not death. Even when we are in excellent physical health, we may be tempted to make an end of our mental torments by committing suicide. The law should not encourage any of us to lend assistance to such endeavours. Our efforts should plainly be devoted to caring for such distressed individuals.
Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill is supposed only to apply to people who are already very ill, and are suffering so badly that they wish to be helped to die. Its supporters talk of letting such individuals make “an informed choice”.
They have fallen into the error of supposing that such a choice can be arrived at by the person concerned, without any extraneous influences making themselves felt.
But if it is passed, Lord Falconer’s measure will itself become one of those extraneous influences. The law will itself have declared that death is a valid option. This knowledge will be in the patient’s mind, and in the minds of those who are looking after the patient. The temptation to take a short cut to death will be increased. Love and courage and medical science and (vulgar thought) money may no longer be devoted to strengthening and sustaining and comforting the patient. All concerned will now know that a way out exists, if only the patient has the selflessness to take it. The choice will not be neutral, and to imagine that it can be is a liberal illusion.
Lawyers do not belong in sick rooms. There at the end the patient’s family, friends, nurses and doctors try to work out what is to be done, and how best to interpret the patient’s own wishes. Pain-killing drugs may be administered in larger and larger doses, and have the effect of shortening life.
But the law sets the wider framework for what happens in the sick room. And hard cases make bad law. This is a point which supporters of Lord Falconer’s Bill are reluctant to concede. They select the cases which suit their own cause, which tend to concern individuals of unusual clarity of mind and strength of purpose. Most of us are not like that. We are vulnerable, and as we approach death we are likely to become more vulnerable.
Sir Thomas Browne wrote, “We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.” But most of us would much rather the law did not promote that particular cure. The weaker we are, the more we need to be able to trust those around us to try to keep us alive, not to kill us.