Comment Comment and Features

Why assisted suicide is the big new celebrity cause

Actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, left, prompted a national debate on assisted suicide (PA)

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph last year, 80 prominent figures called for the legalisation of assisted suicide for the terminally ill in Britain. The list of signatories included actors Hugh Grant, Sir Patrick Stewart, Zoë Wanamaker, comedians Jo Brand and Eric Idle, and writer Ian McEwan. All of them are patrons of the campaign group Dignity in Dying. How was a body once known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society able to assemble such a star-studded line-up? The answer is not as simple as you might think.

But first, does the luvvie campaign for assisted suicide really matter? Yes, it does. It’s true that, in the last decade alone, Parliament has rejected three major attempts to introduce assisted suicide. But it now seems that the tide is starting to turn in favour of the practice. Polls consistently suggest that 80 per cent of Britons support a change in the law and this September a Private Member’s Bill could give MPs their first vote on the topic since 1997. It’s easy to dismiss the opinions of actors, comedians and writers, but we do actually listen to them. Few us can wholly resist the idea that something is only important – even the matter of our own mortality – if a celebrity is talking about it.

Look at those names on the Telegraph letter. What do they have in common apart from fame? At the risk of sounding cheeky, they are all of a certain age. They belong to that remarkably fortunate generation known as the baby boomers. “We are the generation who we had it all,” one member of this jammy lot tells me. “I had a free grammar school education, free university, almost guaranteed entry into the profession of my choice and a generous pension when I retired. I’ve even got a free bus pass.”

This climate of security and prosperity has helped to shape the baby boomer world view, which some describe as “expressive individualism”: the idea that every individual has a unique core of feeling that it is their life’s purpose to express. Luvvies born in the 1950s and 1960s are arguably the perfect embodiments of this ideal.

Kim Cattrall, a star of Sex in the City and – surprise, surprise – a patron of Dignity in Dying, puts it like this: “I grew up at a time, in contrast to my parents, where I had control over how I wanted to spend my life, where I wanted to spend it, and when I wanted to make changes. I have had control over my destiny to some degree… It made me question whether I would want control over my death as well. And I know I would.” This celebration of the power to shape our destinies inevitably extends to death. Why should we be free, the argument runs, to decide how to spend our lives, but not how and when to make our exit?

Luvvies are obviously a fairly well-heeled bunch. If you’re rich enough to buy your way out of everyday discomfort and indignities, from botox to exotic winter breaks, then why on earth should you endure terminal illness? For the materially comfortable, assisted suicide can look like the business-class option for those who are ready to escape this life.

The rise of this attitude has coincided with a celebrity takeover of politics. Back in 2009 actress Joanna Lumley was making a stink outside the Houses of Parliament, fighting for the rights of all Gurkhas to settle in Britain. Working in Westminster at the time meant I had a ringside seat from my office window. Lumley’s father served in the 6th Gurkha Rifles and her sincerity seemed captivating and innocuous. But I’ll never forget a retired civil servant turning to me and saying that the sight of her “makes my blood run cold”. Why? Because he grasped that he was watching the future of politics – and it would have little to do with politicians and a lot to do with celebrities.

Lumley won, of course. She was a national sweetheart making an emotive case for a highly complex cause. And ever since then there has been no more lethal political weapon. Campaigners have been quick to cotton on to this and that is partly why celebs are at the forefront of the push for assisted suicide.

But there may be another reason why thespians, in particular, are so drawn to this issue. You may recall that last year Britain’s television viewers were gripped by a storyline in the soap opera Coronation Street, involving the character Hayley Cropper, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh. To the strains of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, the terminally ill character swallowed a lethal cocktail of barbiturates before taking her final, heartrending breaths in her husband’s arms. The hashtag #GoodbyeHayley was soon trending on Twitter. Bobby Cole Norris, a star of the massively popular “scripted reality” show The Only Way is Essex, was heartbroken. “Time to sob uncontrollably… #GoodbyeHayley,” he tweeted. Television presenter Jenni Falconer was also deeply moved. “What incredible acting and emotional scenes” she wrote. “I know it’s a soap but my heart is aching for [Hayley’s husband] Roy. #GoodbyeHayley.”

Following the episode, the Manchester Evening News said: “It’s been one of the most talked-about storylines in Coronation Street history and Hayley Cropper’s decision to take her death into her own hands has divided the nation over the right to die debate.” The commentary concluded with a poll which asked: “Do people have a right to die?” Ninety per cent voted yes.

But the luvvie attraction to assisted suicide goes much deeper than a mere yearning for control. Explaining his support for the practice, Ian McEwan said: “The issue is not really of death but of how you live out that last chapter, those last sentences.” Luvvies, you see, regard death as the final scene in their personal drama, and that is why they take their departure extremely seriously.

For actors, death scenes are the ultimate test of talent because they are so challenging. Hesmondhalgh was heaped with praise for portraying Cropper’s death so believably. Daily Telegraph critic Ben Lawrence wrote: “We were in that flat with Hayley and husband Roy living every tragic moment.”

The best actors have an outstanding gift for empathy and this may be another reason why they tend to support assisted suicide. Those who have portrayed terminally ill characters are often the most outspoken. Brenda Fricker played Megan Roach in the drama Casualty.

Her character opted for assisted suicide and the actress is now a patron of Dignity in Dying. Julie Walters, meanwhile, took on the real-life character of Dr Anne Turner, who died at the Dignitas clinic, in the BBC film A Short Stay in Switzerland. Walters has since said she thinks assisted suicide was “right for Anne” and “totally” believes that people have a “right to die”.

In the build-up to Cropper’s death Hesmondhalgh repeatedly expressed her support for the cause. As her character breathed her last, the wife of the late locked-in patient Tony Nicklinson tweeted: “You have done our cause proud. Brilliant performance. Nobody should have to suffer. #righttodie.” The boundaries between life – or, rather, death – and art were well and truly blurred.

The relentless artistic depiction of highly emotive cases is worrying because it presents just one aspect of assisted suicide: the poignant individual struggle with suffering. As the MP Nadine Dorries said when reflecting on Hayley’s death: “Not everyone has a loving Roy. For many people the next of kin is a hospital, care home or a similar budget constrained autonomous body.”

Of course no one wants to die in agony and no one should doubt the right-to-die luvvies’ sincerity. But their well meaning interventions are distorting a debate that needs to be conducted not just with the heart but also with the head.

The reality is that Britain today is not only composed of the “doers” – the go-getters – but also the “done-untos”. Luvvies are undoubtedly “doers”. Anyone who wants to succeed in acting needs an unusual amount of determination, initiative and self-belief. But those who star in West End shows may find it hard to grasp the experience of the “done-untos”. These are people who lack the ability and means to shape their own destinies.

The distinction between the “doers” and “done-untos” was coined by the former Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, in an electrifying speech in the House of Lords in 2009. The bishop, whose daughter has Down’s Syndrome, said: “Speeches about freedom, choice and personal autonomy may be fine for those, including many of us in your Lordships’ House, who are well educated, articulate and not totally economically dependent on others… However, I ask noble Lords to reflect for a moment on the many people, in this country and the world, whose experience of life is much more about being ‘done unto’ – sometimes by those closest to them – and whose experience of professionals, including doctors, is not always of people of good faith, like you and me, but of remote, aloof and often faceless people who make decisions that may not immediately reflect … the client’s interests or long-term needs.”

No matter how much cheerleaders for assisted suicide suggest otherwise, death is never a purely individual experience. Our departure is as bound by financial, emotional and practical constraints as our lives are.

The Great British Bake Off star Mary Berry is a principled Christian woman who chose Onward Christian Soldiers as one of her Desert Island Discs. But she has said that, if she is still alive at 90, she would want assisted suicide to avoid burdening her children. So this cause isn’t simply the province of luvvies boarding the last slightly edgy liberal bandwagon. It also attracts some of the more introspective celebrities who fear they may outlive their usefulness.

But in the main, the luvvie campaigners have a remarkably romanticised view of death. When this is combined with a naïve belief in the innate goodness of human beings, it can be dangerous.

It is no coincidence that doctors and lawyers, who see the uglier or weaker side of human nature, maintain a healthy scepticism about what an assisted suicide law might unleash. They realise that unscrupulous individuals will find a way around any “safeguards” (to use a favourite term of lobbyists).

As New York Times writer Ross Douthat recently argued: “The current definitions advanced by social liberalism do not make individual autonomy the measure of all things; they do not simply instantiate a will to power or self-fulfillment. But they do treat adult autonomy as a morally elevated good, and rate other possible rights and harm claims considerably lower as a consequence… today’s social liberalism does not simply preach an individualism unbound. But it preaches an individualism in which many bonds and rules and constraints are thinned to filaments, and waiting for the knife.”

These uncomfortable truths have been devoured by euphemism. Advocates are uncomfortable with the honest phrase “assisted suicide” and speak instead of “assisted dying”. Caring and cruel relatives alike are automatically referred to as “loved ones”. Meanwhile, plays, films and TV series keep on hitting the same emotion buttons and the news media bombard us with stories of Brits travelling to Switzerland in pursuit of the “right to die”. Morbidly fascinated, we click through to the disturbing pictures of a new family smiling and sharing their last meal together.

Is this ceremonial approach to assisted suicide a glimpse of the future? We live in what has been called a “selfie culture”. It’s not enough simply to visit the Eiffel Tower anymore; we must take a photo of ourselves doing it and post it on Facebook. More and more it is we, and not just the luvvies, who treat life as one great performance for friends and strangers. If assisted suicide is legalised, it will surely become a part of this peculiar self-documenting culture.

And in 50 years, when assisted suicide has, more than likely, long been legalised, and recognised as just another personal choice which no one dares to criticise, perhaps there will be water-cooler conversations that go something like this:

“Any plans for this weekend?”

“Yes, it’s my Uncle Bill’s last supper so all the family are getting together. He still hasn’t decided on a theme, so I’m not sure what to wear. Anyway, look out for the pictures on Instagram…”

Madeleine Teahan is associate editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (12/6/15).

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