There seem to be two widely held views about the right length for human life. On the one hand are those who believe in a loving God, who cares and provides for each human being. They believe in the Resurrection and a glorious eternal after-life for those who have followed the commandments of love. On the other hand are many who believe in no God, or like the ancient Greeks and Romans, believe in gods who care little or not at all for the after-life of individual humans.
The former see this life as a preparation for the next life. They usually think that the joys, sufferings and pains of this life are to be borne of for the sake of greater bliss thereafter. They normally believe that our days are already numbered and that it would be wrong to shorten them.
The latter see life as something entirely subject to human control. They therefore think it is right and proper for all rational adults to bring their life to an end, whenever they see fit. Where a person is unable to end his own life, or has difficulty in doing so, they propose that he or she should be helped to do so. That is the theme of the Bill currently before the House of Commons.
These two views cannot be reconciled. They stem from radically different values and belief about the meaning and purpose of human life. Neither side, as we have seen in many debates, is at all likely to convince the other. The prospects for a compromise solution are negligible. The best we can hope for is that each group will respect the deeply held convictions of the other.
In this situation it is our duty to consider what is likely to be best from the point of view of public policy. We should avoid changing the status quo for the sake of assumed gains, which may prove to be an illusion. Above all, we should strive to prevent adverse unintended consequences. We need to take account of some factors, which already exist.
For example, many people with physical or mental handicaps fear that in the aftermath of new legislation, they will be seen as burdensome or as disposable members of society. They do not wish to hear calls for euthanasia. The contributions that they make to the common good may be small, but should not be disregarded. They generally form part of families, who would be diminished by their removal.
There are also the elderly and the chronically sick of all ages, who are not going to recover. Their expectation of life may be quite long, certainly far longer than the six months specified in the Bill. They have reason to fear that the climate of public opinion will turn against them, questioning their right to live. Such people should not be made to fear that they too are a burden to their families and to society at large.
We know already that the suicide of individuals has social consequences. Some kinship groups are more subject to taking their own lives than others. The loss of individuals affects those who knew or loved them. The conscious decisions of those who are likely to seek “assisted dying” are not very different from the decision of those of any age who decide to kill themselves. We can therefore expect that the assisted suicide of people with short expectations of life will have effects on the lives and well-being of others.
Lastly there are the expectations of the relatives of those who will be covered by the Bill. Such people may not be rich, but they may well own assets considered desirable – a modest house, or just a car. Will these be sufficient to make some family or relations begin persuading the terminally ill and vulnerable others that the time to go has come? Do we wish to encourage covetousness and the desire for quick gain, in cases where these might otherwise not occur?
Genuine fears, the state of public opinion and the baser side of human nature, are all factors to be weighed, before rushing to accept the enthusiasm of the proponents of the Bill.