The defeat of the Assisted Dying Bill in Parliament last week marked a victory for human decency, moral urgency, and political imagination. Voted down in the House of Commons by a convincing 330 to 118 votes, the bill was just one of many similar attempts at legalizing the right to die for the disabled and sick in our society.
There is no right for people to demand of the state that it assist them to die. On the contrary, we should be reducing the number of suicides, and it is our moral duty to discourage anyone’s choice to end their own life. Suicide has always been an unhealthy sign, symptomatic of some broader social fragmentation, personal trauma, or psychological imbalance. When it happens, suicide is a tragedy. It is not something that a government should ever endorse or facilitate.
The bill that MPs were debating was about enabling doctors to artificially induce death in their patients. It was about giving doctors the right to administer something to someone that will kill them. The bill would not just legitimize suicide, but promote the participation of others in it.
The law has always regarded it as improper to assist in someone’s suicide – and rightfully so. Anyone’s choice to kill themselves is a stark and poignant reminder that society wasn’t doing enough to help the individual who chose to die. All the more reason, then, to be inspired by the Dignity in Dying lobby. Let’s invest in even better palliative care. Hospice and end-of-life care is not a distinct issue. It is a morally urgent resource to help those in desperate pain and anguish. Clearly, something should be done – and it sure as heck isn’t to pretend that death is a good treatment for anything, or to vow that doctors should be entitled to terminate the lives of the sick.
Ominously, Dignity in Dying’s immediate response after the bill was defeated was to insist that it would appeal to the courts, reciting the mantra that ‘Parliament has failed to act’. That is not how democratic channels operate. The pro-assisted suicide charity’s retort is an immature gesture of protest, amounting to a lazy disregard of constitutional process.
Besides, the courts will in all likelihood recognise, as they have consistently many times before, that this is a matter for Parliament. It deserves to be discussed at the highest level since it is a serious, life-affecting, potentially life-ending piece of legislation. Throwing it to the courts will get the assisted suicide spin-doctors nowhere.
Most of the MPs who rejected this bill were not religious crackpots; indeed, the CofE was the only substantive voting lobby who endorsed the bill. There is a reasoned, principled case to be made against assisted dying. It has everything to do with human flourishing, in the here and now, and in the absence of any all-powerful deity. Suicides will happen. But the prospect of our law or our Parliament institutionally endorsing the legal right to participate in the suicide of another is an ugly, regressive nightmare. We should invigorate our culture with a sense of human possibility and autonomy in this life.
Forget fetishizing a ‘good death’ – you are not likely to get one anyway. What we can all do is to take charge of pursuing a Good Life and face up to the challenge of the openness of existence together. Let us be more imaginative, more ambitious, and strive for a culture that loves life for its rich opportunities, and leaves few in the grip of suicide.