Saturday, 7 January 2012

Why Simon Jenkins is wrong

There are issues that defy ideological categorisations and hence present a particular problem for political parties and governments. One such issue is assisted suicide. In Britain the law is vague at best on what constitutes assistant suicide and, more recently, the director of prosecutions has tried to clarify the conditions under which the CPS would or would not pursue cases in court. A recent report has stirred the debate once more in the New Year. A commission funded by supporters of assisted suicide has asked the government to look at introducing legislation to enable doctors and medical staff to help people die in certain circumstances. The report is careful in spelling out the strict conditions under which assisted suicide should be legal, and where support should be provided. 
Clearly this is an emotive issue. It is also a matter which cannot be considered in isolation from other areas such as quality of end of life care, and how we treat and talk about people who are vulnerable and rely on help and support from others. It also seems clear that there is a need for some legislation, given that a two tier system has effectively established itself with those who can afford it traveling to Switzerland, and those who cannot remaining in often inadequate palliative care. 
This however does not mean that the outcome should necessarily be legalisation of assisted suicide. The issue is complicated by the fact that assistance to die would naturally be provided by the NHS, i.e. a tax funded public body. In other words, since suicide itself is legal in the UK, the debate revolves around not suicide, but the nature and provision of assistance and whether or not the state may have a duty in this area. 
Simon Jenkins came down on the side of supporters of assisted suicide in a piece in the Guardian recently. However I take issue with the line of argument he presented. Here is what he said: 
‘The state is already preoccupied with trying to stop individuals doing what they wish - always “in their own interest”. It daily increases control on how they work, play, eat, drink, smoke, drive and learn.... The modern individual is regarded by the law as first and foremost a possession of the state, the purest form of communism.’ (you can read his article HERE
He goes on to say that ‘an adult’s freedom of decision over his or her own body should trump any claim from the state.’ 
I find this line of logic confusing to say the least. As mentioned before, suicide is legal in the UK. What is not legalised is to assist somebody to take their life. The object of prosecution is assistance, not suicide. At the heart of the issue is not the help spouses give to their loved ones who want to die (the director of prosecution has refrained from pursuing these particular cases for a long time now) but whether or not NHS doctors should provide the medical assistance and resources to end one’s life. In essence, then, if Simon Jenkins is against the state regulating every aspect of somebody’s life, he should oppose legislation about assisted suicide as well. 
The insidious nature of communism is not demonstrated through abundance of legislation, but in control of people’s lives through universal provision of state services. I think the expression is: from cradle to grave and it is exactly this type of universal provision which assisted suicide would contribute to. 
Jenkins’ suggestion that the government’s failure to legislate in this area is denying people the freedom of decision over their body is misleading at best. They can take their own life at any time without breaking the law. What campaigners for assisted suicide want to achieve is that the state provides the means to kill yourself. 
It is this obfuscation of the real issue that sometimes infuriates opponents of the assisted suicide campaign. As Jenkins calls on the government to draw a line in the sand, he should stop blowing sand into our eyes. 

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