Thursday, 28 February 2013

BBC – Liz Carr Presents ‘When Assisted Death is Legal” (Euthanasia Road Trip) Parts 1 & 2

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Liz Carr in Edinburgh last September and hearing her speak. Liz can be side-splittingly funny - but her message is never lost nor diminished. The following commentary by US Not Dead Yet's Stephen Drake on Liz's work with the BBC in producing two radio documentaries is worthy of note. As he says, the two part series is definitely worth more than one listen (links at the bottom):

Stephen Drake:

Stephen Drake

Unlike most people, who manage to be good at one or two things, Liz Carr is a broadcaster, actor, international disability rights activist, stand-up comedian and writer. Her latest acting gig is as forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery on the popular BBC One show Silent Witness.
We can now add documentarian to the list.
Liz Carr
Carr is presenting a 2-episode documentary on BBC World Service titled “Euthanasia Road Trip.”  Episode 1 has aired and is available to listen to on the BBC World Service site. Here’s how the site describes the documentary:
The debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia is a passionate one. But as the discussions continue to rage around the world, there are a few places where assisted death is already legal. Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Oregon and Washington States in the US all have laws permitting assisted suicide or euthanasia in some form.
In this two-part documentary for the BBC World Service, actress and broadcaster Liz Carr goes on a personal journey to all six places to see how it works. As a long-standing campaigner against assisted suicide legislation in the UK, she wants to find out what assisted death means in practice – and whether she’s right to be concerned.
In part one, Carr travels to Switzerland, where she visits the rooms where volunteers help people die, and finds out why the Swiss law on assisted suicide goes back to the 19th Century. In Belgium she meets a doctor who admits to performing euthanasia before it was legal; and in Luxembourg, she finds out why the law on assisted suicide nearly caused a constitutional crisis. Carr questions whether it is possible to balance the right of the individual who wants to die with the responsibility of society to protect those who don’t.
I’ve listened to it twice through – and it’s excellent so far. Carr talks to family members of people who have died through assisted suicide or euthanasia, promoters of the legislation, physicians and disability activists. It’s far more even-handed than the pro-euthanasia documentary makers have produced. You’ll also learn more about the history of legislation and practice than you’ll ever read in a mainstream press article.
Carr’s interviews are great, and often revealing. Most interesting, so far, are her own reflections about her own opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia even as she engages with people who are completely comfortable with the practice(s).
After talking to two main advocates of euthanasia in Luxembourg who are obviously dissatisfied with the current parameters of the law (they would like to expand them), Liz Carr shares this  this terrific articulation of the slippery slope:
To me, this is what’s alarming about assisted death legislation; how easily a law can be changed once it’s introduced. The Luxembourg campaigners pushed for a law with strict limits and safeguards, which seems reasonable to most. But then the next step is to extend it to less straightforward groups like under-eighteens or people with dementia. Campaigners against assisted suicide like me often talk about the slippery slope. And I think this is what it means; Once a law’s in it’s unlikely ever to go away and when it gets extended it’s without all the debate and discussion that we have when it first goes through. It hasn’t happened in Luxembourg yet, they’ve only had five cases so far. But the way the people who pushed it through talk about the law makes me worried about the future.
Having listened to both parts of the “Euthanasia Road Trip” documentary at least 3 time through, I appreciate Carr’s work more than every. She had barely 50 minutes to work with – 50 minutes in which she covered 3 European countries and 2 American states.  All that and she managed to make it engaging and informative – I don’t think there’s a wasted minute. It’s a fantastic piece and can’t recommend it enough.
Liz Carr at Dignitas
Correcting an oversight in yesterday’s blog post, to the left is a picture of Liz Carr, shared with her permission, that was taken as she arrived at the “Holy Grail of assisted suicide tourism, the Little Blue House aka Dignitas” (taken from her description of the photo on Facebook).
In Part 2 of her Euthanasia Road Trip, Carr visits the Netherlands and then goes to the US states of Oregon and Washington, which both have legalized assisted suicide for a relatively narrow range of people.
In the Netherlands, Carr spends most of her time with NVVE – both with representatives and at a conference they hosted. NVVE is a “right to die” advocacy group in the Netherlands.  Carr notes how the practice of euthanasia has expanded over time in the Netherlands and where it seems to be going now:
About 3000 people died through euthanasia last year. About 3 percent of total deaths, a number which increases each year. They’re mainly cancer patients, but the latest discussion in the Netherlands is about extending the law to another group of people – the over 70s, who may not be ill or dying but are simply tired of life or as NVVE call it, people who have reached a “completed life.” (Quotation marks around term “completed life” added by editor)
After further discussion eligibility of those who have reached a “completed life” with an NVVE member, Carr tells us:
Completed life is going to be the next major debate in relation to assisted suicide and euthanasia in the Netherlands.
Once in the US, Carr interviews both proponents and opponents of assisted suicide – they’re informative and revealing. Among others, she interviews Barbara Coombs Lee of Compassion, and Choices, Kenneth Stevens of Physicians for Compassionate Care and disability activist/advocate Marilyn Golden. These are interviews you should listen to, even if you think you’ve heard it all from players in Oregon and Washington state. You’ll definitely hear some different slants and/or new info – I did.
While even proponents can’t point to any kind of hard evidence that the law has applied to a broader range of people than the law allows, the system in both states makes actual practices hard to verify. What will the future look like? Here’s Carr again:
So is it the case that once you introduce assisted suicide and euthanasia for one group that it’s naturally extended to others and that the numbers increase? People talk about a slippery slope in relation to assisted suicide and euthanasia and I’m worried that that’s what it actually means – that once a law’s in, it’s much easier to extend it.
As it turns out, there’s plenty of reason to expect that to happen here in the United States, once the assisted suicide advocates feel that they’ve reached some kind of “critical mass” both in terms of the number of states legalizing assisted suicide and the amount of public support for it.
And that’s where we revisit the concept of “slippery slopes.” Carr has given us a brilliant and useful definition for one aspect – or definition – for the slope. As long-time readers of this blog might remember, “right to die” advocate Margaret Battin and colleagues published an article looking at the same countries Liz Carr did – and declared no evidence of a “slippery slope,” because their definition of the slope didn’t include “expansion of eligibility and practice.”
In the past, I’ve talked about another aspect or definition of the slippery slope – the “slippery slope” can be a political strategy, better known as an incrementalist strategy.
If you listen to Carr’s interviews and commentary, it’s clear that expansion of practices in the European countries didn’t just happen – there were – and are – groups that laid groundwork for the expansion.
There’s good evidence the same groundwork is being laid here.  For example, Compassion and Choices has an active campaign to promote VSED – Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking – for people who aren’t terminally ill but want to die.  So far, that means people who are elderly and “tired of living.”  They have also gotten hospice professionals on board to facilitate the process for elderly people who choose to end their lives this way.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to predict that – within a few years – Compassion and Choices will switch gears.  They’ll point out that more and more doctors are cooperating with nonterminally ill patients who want to die through VSED.  They’ll add that – unfortunately – dying through VSED isn’t acceptable to a number of people.  The punchline will be this – “If these people who are “tired of life” have the right to starve themselves to death, shouldn’t they have the right to assisted suicide?”
For clarity’s sake, I’m not holding my formulation of slippery slope as better than the one Liz Carr ended up being concerned with.  I think they’re both valid and they’re both useful.  Carr backs up her definition with instances of how things have worked in other countries – that’s both new and extremely useful for us all.
Having listened to both parts of the “Euthanasia Road Trip” documentary at least 3 time through, I appreciate Carr’s work more than every.  She had barely 50 minutes to work with – 50 minutes in which she covered 3 European countries and 2 American states.  All that and she managed to make it engaging and informative – I don’t think there’s a wasted minute.  It’s a fantastic piece and can’t recommend it enough.

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