Scotland has voted, yet again, against legalising physician assisted suicide by 82 votes to 36. When Holyrood’s parliamentary committee was examining the evidence concerning assisted suicide, specifically in the context of suffering, they concluded: “The committee acknowledges the concerns of opponents of the Bill who argue that this laudable aim carries risks that they consider to be too high: the risks associated with crossing a legal and moral ‘rubicon’.”
The risks associated with crossing this legal and moral rubicon smack us straight in the face whenever we hear of another harrowing Dignitas case in the news, when we have to ask ourselves: what is suffering and how can legislators define such a subjective term?
It is almost six years since an elderly married couple from Britain famously took their lives at the Dignitas suicide centre in Zurich. Joan Downes had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and her husband, Sir Edward Downes, who was not terminally ill, chose to commit suicide with her.
In an article for the Guardian, their daughter Boudicca said: “In my father’s case, and I think in the case of many others, the issue is not the fact that you are about to die of a terminal illness in a certain number of weeks or months. It is that your life becomes unbearable because of physical or mental suffering.”
There have been similar stories of Britons opting for suicide at Dignitas. The most controversial was the suicide of Craig Ewert in 2006, filmed and broadcast on British TV. The most disturbing was the case of Daniel James, who was not terminally ill and only 23 years old when he chose to end his life in Switzerland.
This week everybody has been discussing the case of Jeffrey Spector, a 54-year-old, non-terminally-ill man who died on Friday, announcing that he was “jumping the gun”. A wife and three young daughters survive him.
Following the news about Jeffrey Spector, the architect of the latest assisted suicide legislation in this country, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, told the World at One: “When I saw the photographs on some of the front pages of the newspapers today of [Jeffrey Spector] having his last meal in Switzerland, I think it’s completely wrong that when someone is terminally ill they don’t have the option – subject to safeguard – in deciding to take their own life, in the context of them dying where they want. It’s wrong that they have to go to Switzerland to do that.”
This is confusing. Lord Falconer insists he only wants assisted suicide for people who are expected to live no longer than six months – his proposed legislation would not have made a difference to Jeffrey Spector.
For supporters of assisted suicide, this case clearly still provokes a sense of injustice, and if their motive is to alleviate suffering, then this is hardly surprising. Going by their logic, why shouldn’t individuals such as Jeffrey Spector be entitled to end their lives too? Why shouldn’t people who feel miserable once their spouse has died be helped to commit suicide? And why should we endure emotional suffering if the law can liberate us from physical pain? After all, Dignitas has previously welcomed two British women who were simply “tired of life”.
You may remember that Lord Falconer established a Committee on Assisted Dying before he drafted his Bill. The report recommended that physician-assisted suicide should not be offered to people with disabilities who are not terminally ill “at this point in time”.
If not now, then when?
The slow trickle of suicide stories from Dignitas will inevitably increase the pressure for an assisted suicide law in this country. But it seems obvious to me that, deep down, proponents do not believe assisted suicide should only be reserved for the terminally ill.