About a third of us will die in pain. To put it more strongly, death for many will be agonising and protracted. Yet the law still refuses us the right to ask a doctor to help us die with some dignity.
Why are we still denied the ownership of our own bodies? The religious view, of course, is that our bodies do not belong to us at all. Life, it is said, is a gift of God, and just as only God can give life so only God can take life. Some religions even offer an 'explanation' of terminal pain. The Papal Declaration on Euthanasia (1980) states: "According to Christian teaching, suffering, especially suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God's saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ’s passion".
Religious people are free to believe whatever nonsense they like. Whether they have a right to impose their beliefs on others through the law is an entirely different matter, especially in an increasingly secular society. According to a recent poll, 40% of British people now say they do not believe in a God, and the churches cannot be allowed to dictate to them or even to the majority of their own followers who, according to an NOP poll, are in favour of voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.
In any case, most clerics who use this argument do not really believe their own logic. If they did, they would oppose all medical progress and all effort to preserve life. Life and death are subject to the laws of nature and causation and our behaviour can determine them. As David Hume put it: "Shall we assert that the Almighty has reserved to himself in any peculiar manner the disposal of the lives of men, and has not submitted that event in common with others, to the general laws by which the universe is governed?" (Of Suicide). Doctors 'play at God' by prolonging life; why then can they not also shorten it for us if we wish?
And what are we to make of the argument from suffering? God appears to act in a highly selective and arbitrary manner in choosing those who will have the dubious privilege of re-enacting Christ's sacrifice. Many of us, for no apparent reason, will thus be subjected to a living hell, while others will die peacefully in our sleep. What sort of God would contemplate this injustice?
This kind of twisted reasoning is nothing but a sadomasochistic glorification of pain. To regard suffering as part of God's plan is not far removed from justifying the infliction of suffering on other humans. It is the type of pernicious logic which actually cheapens life.
This leads to another argument Whether from a religious perspective or not, it is often claimed that euthanasia is a denial of the sanctity of life. This doctrine may well have a religious origin, though it is now part of a broadly secular ethic. But what exactly does it mean? Does it imply that taking life is always intrinsically wrong? If so, it would entail a commitment to absolute pacifism and absolute veganism. We would totally oppose all war or killing animals, even putting the incurably ill pet 'to sleep'. Surely not many would commit themselves to such an extreme position? Most of us would accept that there are special cases when taking life is justified, though we may disagree about what they are. And this is the point voluntary euthanasia is one of those special cases.
Again, it is often suggested that euthanasia devalues life by making it disposable. Therefore, to allow voluntary euthanasia is the first step on a slippery slope which ends with euthanasia becoming involuntary. The spectre of mercenary relatives, eager to dispose of a burdensome mother or father or to lay hands on their money, is often raised. At the very least, many old people may feel that they are a nuisance to others and so opt for euthanasia when in their hearts they want to continue living. It was this argument which particularly concerned a House of Lords Select Committee a few years ago. It felt that removing the ban would put pressure on elderly or vulnerable people to request 'mercy killing': "It would be next to impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law was not abused".
Yet every right and every law faces the possibility of abuse. This fact is hardly a convincing argument for having no rights or no laws. Should we refuse to allow trade unions because some people may be bullied into joining them? Should we ban all marriages because of wife beating? Of course not. The absurdity of this argument should be abundantly clear.
In any case, safeguards against abuse ARE possible. In the Netherlands doctors can practise voluntary euthanasia under strict guidelines laid down in 1985. There are essentially three conditions: voluntariness - the patient’s request must be persistent, conscious and freely made, unbearable suffering - the patient’s suffering, including but not limited to physical pain, cannot be relieved by other means; and consultation - attending physician must consult with a colleague regarding the patient’s condition and the genuineness and appropriateness of the request for euthanasia.
A final argument against voluntary euthanasia is that it would harm the doctor-patient relationship. The purpose of a doctor, it is said, is not to shorter patient's life deliberately but to preserve it, as the Hippocratic Oath in its original form clearly states. Yet the doctor also have a duty to relieve pain, and one of the strongest arguments FOR euthanasia is precisely a compassion for the suffering others. This is why vets put suffering animals 'to sleep'. Why do we show LESS compassion for humans on this matter?
The right to life is meaningless unless we can end it if we choose. Moreover, as the BHA briefing on Voluntary Euthanasia suggests, "individuals must be free to judge the value of their own lives". The person who makes a genuinely free and rational choice to die is thus exercising his or her right of self-determination. It is we ourselves who own our own lives, not the state or churches or even doctors, and the last right in our lives should be the right to end it the way we want.
The fact of the matter is that the principle of autonomy exists in regard to passive euthanasia. We can refuse treatment. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society encourage us to sign Advance Directives in which we state what treatment we do or do not want if we are rendered incompetent and lose our capacity for rational existence. It is sad that we can refuse treatment in order to die but we cannot yet ask our fellow human beings to help us on our way.
Sooner or later, though, the law WILL change. The Northern Territory of Australia led the way in 1996, making voluntary euthanasia legal if life becomes, 'intolerable'. Small jurisdictions CAN make radical changes.