Now that I’m awake, here’s one isolated thought about the Pratchett-inspired right-to-die discussion.
At times, the conversation on assisted suicide takes a similar trajectory to the debate around rape.
Bear with me on this.
For some, all human life is considered sacred and should never be forfeit, however miserable and painful and pointless an existence it may have become. But many people, while willing to admit that it wouldn’t always be a moral abomination to allow someone to end their suffering, are still uneasy about endorsing any sort of legal sanctioning of euthanasia.
While the basic idea might be relatively uncontroversial, they’re worried about the unwanted consequences.
They’re worried about the elderly and infirm feeling pressured to end their lives prematurely, for the sake of not being a burden. They’re worried about people giving up too early, and resorting to suicide before the options for improving or extending their lives have been truly exhausted. They’re worried about the potential for abuse of this system, perhaps by medical staff for the sake of convenience, in the case of patients with no available next of kin and nobody to represent their best interests.
None of these is trivial. These issues and more all need to be taken into consideration if we’re actually going to start changing laws or establishing institutions to help people end their lives. Nobody wants to just go running through the streets shouting “Free hemlock for everyone, come and get it!”
But sometimes – and this was evident in some of the response to Pratchett’s documentary – these concerns obscure the actual issue, and people lose track of whose benefit we’re meant to be doing this for in the first place.
Which is, primarily, people who are heading painfully and senselessly toward the end of their lives, and would like to just cut out some of the deeply unpleasant bit which is all they’ve got left.
I’m not sure quite why the rape comparison occurred to me, but there are some parallels. There are often concerns raised about people being wrongly accused of sexual assault, or how a particular legal approach might affect our societal attitudes more broadly. And these are non-trivial issues which absolutely deserve to be examined in more depth than I’m going to here.
But, sometimes, these legitimate points can be amplified to the point where they drown out the original concerns of victims of rape or sexual assault altogether. When this happens, it ends up sounding like we should just give up trying to find ways to help mostly-women, due to fears of potential negative consequences for mostly-men.
We don’t have to assume there’s no smoke without fire when it comes to rape, and we don’t have to be lackadaisical about letting old people die. But we can still do something, and be driven by compassion. Don’t let’s forget who we’re supposed to be trying to help.