Friday, 9 August 2013

The Law: It's not about personal choice

The UK media has been awash of late with stories and interviews on assisted suicide and euthanasia.

First there was the UK & Ireland visit of Exit International's Dr Philip Nitschke followed recently by the UK Court of Appeal decisions in respect to Nicklinson and Martin.

What has fired up the debate even more recently is the discussion and pending debate on Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill before the UK House of Lords.

Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick OBE
My good friend and colleague from Not Dead Yet UK, Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick fronted the media in its various forms almost constantly over a few days of intense media focus.

The discussion in the video that follows was from Skynews Thinking Aloud program that aired on the 26th of July. It features Kevin and Motor Neurone (MND) sufferer, Mr Paul Chamberlain who wants the Assisted Dying law passed so that he can commit assisted suicide.

The discussion moves backwards and forwards between the two. What is most noticeable is that Mr Chamberlain is making a personal case based upon his own circumstances (as well he might) whilst Dr Fitzpatrick is making the case for society in general and, more specifically, for others.

It does remind me somewhat of a discussion on MND that took place in a debate I was involved in some years ago. A debating opponent described her husband's diagnosis of MND and how he suicided with concerns very similar to Mr Chamberlain (before the onset of terminal symptoms). As Kevin observes, one should rightly have every sympathy for people in these difficult circumstances.

However, during question time in that debate, a woman in the audience rose and said that her husband had recently died from MND adding that his death was not anything like the difficult circumstances as described by my debating opponent.

What was the difference? I can't really say. Certainly, as with any serious illness, there is an understood usual trajectory; but as with all illnesses, it would affect different people differently for a myriad of reasons.

We cannot say that Mr Chamberlain and others fear the unknown, in one sense, because, even though there may be differences, what he describes as his expectations are likely quite accurate. Parsing his comments somewhat, however, it seems to me that what he is essentially saying is: 'I couldn't cope with that.'

He clearly does not want his family to see him deteriorate into, in his words 'a pitiful state' and wishes to spare them the 'indignity'. These are incredibly subjective terms that indicate not only his personal attitude (entirely understandable) but also his own interpretation of his family members' attitudes. He may be right, who knows.

But it struck me as it has done in other cases to wonder how a conversation with the family about their attitudes, expectations and fears might occur. For example, one cannot imagine that someone would start the discussion with the observation that they simply would not be able to cope with seeing their Father/Husband in that state. The implications of such a statement would be far reaching. One can more easily imagine an awkward affirmation that, no matter what, you're still our Dad (husband etc.) and that we'll be there for you. One can also imagine that Mr Chamberlain might say something like, 'I don't want to put you through all this', which would be an entirely natural observation, as would be the reply, 'don't be silly.'

In the video Mr Chamberlain gives quite a long answer to the question about his family. In the end he seemed a little uncertain about their support for his decision. I think he's being quite honest here because it would be difficult to be absolutely certain about this and people will naturally raise occasional doubts and concerns. But it does invite the observation that assisted suicide and euthanasia is not a choice that only affects the person making that choice.

As Dr Fitzpatrick observes the effect of enshrining such personal choices into law diminishes the choices of others. He mentions the disabled whom he says are 'in-the-front-line' because they feel that what is framed as a 'right-to-choose' will ultimately become a duty. In other words, something with no real choice at all.

With due respect to Mr Chamberlain and his family, the 17th century adage coined by UK Judge, Robert Rolf weighs in the balance:
This is one of those unfortunate cases...in which, it is, no doubt, a hardship upon the plaintiff to be without a remedy but by that consideration we ought not to be influenced. Hard cases, it has frequently been observed, are apt to introduce bad law.

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