Euthanasia: a civic right

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

Robert Laurence Binyon For the Fallen 1914*

The 1961 Suicide Act** decriminalised suicide. The same act criminalised assisted-suicide, which became significant over the next fifty years. In those fifty years, assisted-suicide has effectively been ‘legalised’***. Once assisted-suicide is legalised, which is inevitable, the legalisation of euthanasia will probably follow. Legalizing euthanasia will end the infantilisation of British citizens. Adults choosing to die but lacking the physical well-being or moral courage to commit the act themselves will be able to commission an act of euthanasia. Euthanasia will be professionalised and the fear that accompanies irreversible actions will be mitigated.

Binyon’s poem illustrates a very important point about life. The poem relishes the boundless enthusiasm and optimism of young men who are placing themselves in mortal danger. Young soldiers marching into battle ‘with songs… they were young’ contrasted in the next stanza with those who don’t die in battle. They are those who survive, or more likely, never went to battle at all. Survivors grow old and weary. Old age isn’t a joy in Binyon’s poem, ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,’ is a chilling contrast with dying in the flower of youth. A youthful death is an advantage. Euthanasia involves precisely that thought. Death is better then life. Euthanasia is normally a narrative of intolerable pain and an imminent gruesome death. But what if the person contemplating euthanasia is healthy but doesn’t fancy growing old?

The world-famous assisted-suicide Swiss clinic Dignitas makes suicide possible for even the most incapacitated person. They organise the event in an environment where suicide is successfully undertaken without possibility of failure. Patients can arrange to have family and friends with them if they so wish. Dignitas empowers those they have agreed can use their services. Dignitas professionalises suicide, deleting the possibility of the deed being botched. This is very comforting for patients at a potentially distressing moment. Dignitas isn’t available to those who have no medical conditions. Fit people can’t avail themselves of their service.

Euthanasia is commissioned like assisted-suicide except the ‘patient’ doesn’t give assistance beyond passive acceptance. The person about to die dies at the hands of another person. There are many reasons why a fit, capable person can’t face committing suicide. The predominate one is being fear. Fear that they’d botch it, or fear of the actuality, say pointing a gun at one’s own head, standing next to a rail track or swallowing a large number of pills and so on. As with active suicides, those seeking professional support are in an intensely personal moment. Does it matter what the reason for suicide/euthanasia is***? legalizing euthanasia professionalises intentional death and deletes error. This brings the 1961 Suicide Act to its natural conclusion: the empowerment of every individual****.

This narrative creates a paradigm shift. Euthanasia ceases to be an ‘act of mercy’ for a terminally ill person or someone suffering incurable crippling pain and becomes a choice. The earlier paradigm relies on empathy. That is, we can all imagine the horror of being terminally ill or being in incurable pain and might feel justified in ending a life: committing an (illegal) act of mercy. It’s far less easy to look at a fit healthy person and commit euthanasia. Yet the justification of euthanasia relies on empowering individuals making choices for their reasons.

Suicide isn’t problematic in our society having been legal for more than fifty years. Assisted-suicide is quasi-legal but euthanasia remains the last bastion of state control of the bodies of British citizens. The idea that someone contemplating euthanasia has to justify their proposed action appears out of kilter with a robust concept of citizenship in the twenty-first century. Additionally it appears to be exceptionally mature to minimise the risk of a botched attempt by employing experts. A measured maturity ought not to be thwarted by medieval attitudes of state protection which imply state ownership of a citizen’s body.

*For the complete poem go to
** Suicide Act 1961 The first section decriminalised suicide

***Consider the case of Daniel James, aged 23, who had a severe rugby injury but was organically still a young man.
**** The relevant sentences are these: “Death row inmates can bring their own execution drugs”, which means in effect that execution has been replaced by euthanasia in Arizona.

The state’s manual for execution procedures, which was revised last month [January 2017], says attorneys of death row inmates, or others acting on their behalf, can obtain pentobarbital or sodium Pentothal and give them to the state to ensure a smooth execution.”
****There are resonances with the 1967 Abortion Act which deleted ‘back-street’ abortions.

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