Not Saussure

June 8, 2007

Compassionate killings and euthanasia

Filed under: Law — notsaussure @ 5:30 pm

In the course of replying some of the many comments to my piece on Nadine Dorries MP on abortion, I said I’d also give my views on the related — but, to my mind, distinct — topic of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

It’s distinct, to my mind, because whatever views one has about when life begins, there’s no doubt that it’s begun by the time you’re born. Consequently, we’re talking about deliberately ending a human life, and this is something on which I have very mixed views indeed. It’s also something about which I had to give very serious thought indeed during my late wife’s final illness — thank God, it never came to it, but it obviously was something we had to discuss as very real possibility, and I also had to think very seriously about what I would and wouldn’t be prepared to do under certain circumstances.

The short answer is that, if the worst had come to the worst, I’d have helped my wife to die in the manner she wanted, and I’ve have been prepared to take the legal consequences. It would certainly be far preferable were the law on homicide were altered to make it easier to convict for manslaughter in such circumstances, at the Law Commission Report on Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide (pdf) suggests (see Part 7 for a lengthy discussion), but even this — as the Commission’s discussion makes clear — is horribly complicated. As they say,

Under the current law, the compassionate motives of the ‘mercy’ killer are in themselves never capable of providing a basis for a partial excuse. Some would say that this is unfortunate. On this view, the law affords more recognition to other less, or at least no more, understandable emotions such as anger (provocation) and fear (self-defence). Others would say that recognising a partial excuse of acting out of compassion would be dangerous. Just as a defence of necessity “can very easily become simply a mask for anarchy”, so the concept of ‘compassion’ – vague in itself – could very easily become a cover for selfish or ignoble reasons for killing, not least because people often act out of mixed motives.

And, if you do introduce ‘compassion’ as a partial defence, then to whom do you make this defence available? In the words of the Law Commission,

were we to recommend a partial defence of ‘mercy’ killing, there would be very difficult questions regarding its scope. For example, to what extent should the defence be open to secondary parties? Should it be limited to those who have a close personal relationship with V or should it also be available to professional and semi-professional carers? In relation to this second question, Dr Jonathan Rogers has suggested that the solution lies in distinguishing between, on the one hand, professional carers who kill, and on the other hand, family members who kill. The idea is that the latter should have a partial excuse when the former would not.We recognise the force of this argument, but there are problems with it. Justificatory considerations are liable to feature in the motivations of both groups. Moreover, some might argue that it is actually less excusable to rely on a purely personal judgement that another’s life is not worth living than it is to rely on a professional judgement to that effect (for which one is responsible to others as a professional). We offer no view on that argument but it shows the difficulty that must be faced in coming to conclusions that will be acceptable to a large majority of people.

It is, I think, essential that any compassionate killing face a judicial enquiry after the event — the idea of going to plead the case beforehand and getting judicial permission, as currently doctors and families have to do when they want to turn off life-support machines — fills me with horror, partly at the thought of what such proceedings would be like but also at the practicalities of the decision; I mean, where does this leave a couple who’re refused advance permission by the court? Presumably their views won’t have changed. And for how long does this permission last?

The problem is that, while we can all easily see circumstances in which we’d want someone to help us to die, it’s also very easy to see how this could be abused. People do, after all, act from mixed motives. People also find suffering from, and caring for someone who suffers from, a chronic degenerative illness a hell of a strain, which doesn’t always do wonders for your judgement; the certainty the surviving party is going to have to explain himself (and usually is him in such cases, apparently) to an impartial, though, one would hope, sympathetic tribunal and risks punishment if his explanation isn’t adequate is, I think, a very important safeguard for both parties — I say ‘both’ since the knowledge that your partner will go on to face trial would, I think, concentrate the mind of the would-be suicide on whether she or he really does want to ask their partner to do this.

As to the more general question of state-approved euthanasia, that seems to me not just a slippery slope but dancing on the edge of a precipice. Yes, we can all think of situations in which we might think we’d want to die and not want to involve a loved one (or not have anyone we could ask, of course) but the potential for abuse is so vast that the cure seems far worse than the problem. What to do, for example, with the elderly demented who’re in the care of the NHS or social services because they have no one else to whom to turn? They can’t make a rational decision about the quality of their lives; do we really trust Patricia Hewitt, with her understandable concerns for balancing the NHS’s books, to make that sort of decision for them? I’d think twice about trusting her to look after a goldfish, let alone to make life and death decisions (literally) about me, no matter demented I was.

Again, it’s one of those situations where there isn’t a right answer; there’s only a least bad one. Anyway, my thoughts on the matter, as promised.



  1. …The short answer is that, if the worst had come to the worst, I’d have helped my wife to die in the manner she wanted, and I’ve have been prepared to take the legal consequences…

    That’s incredibly brave and also, I believe, the right thing to do. You must judge situations on their merits at the time.

    Comment by jameshigham — June 8, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

  2. Here in the U.S., in the state of Oregon, physician-assisted suicide is legal, but only under the strictest terms: The patient has to be terminally ill, he has to consult two doctors and undergo rigorous psychological screenings; he has to endure a long waiting period and jump through hoops every step of the way.

    Then, and only then, can the patient opt for a lethal dose of medication.

    Comment by Ruthie — June 9, 2007 @ 1:59 am

  3. How does that work in practice, Ruthie? Here in the UK that would be illegal, though it is perfectly legal for a doctor to pursue a course of treatment (or withhold treatment) if that’s in the patient’s best interests, even if that’ll shorten the patient’s life; so, for example, if a patient is terminally ill and in great pain, the doctor can administer as much diamorphine as is necessary to relieve the pain without worrying too much about what a fatal overdose might be. What he can’t do, though, is agree to put the patient out of his misery.

    I do worry about involving doctors in a conscious decision to end someone’s life because it seems to change the doctor-patient relationship quite dramatically.

    Comment by notsaussure — June 9, 2007 @ 7:01 am

  4. Of euthanasia you say, “Consequently, we’re talking about deliberately ending a human life”. Which we are also doing (or ought to be doing) in the case of abortion.

    Comment by Little Black Sambo — June 9, 2007 @ 3:28 pm

  5. Possibly so, but my point was that, while the issue of when human life begins and what you mean by that term is clearly highly contentious in the context of abortion — people argue about it, so it’s self-evidently contentious — that’s not a debatable issue when you’re talking about euthanasia.

    Comment by notsaussure — June 9, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

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