Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

In Scotland, a Deadly Argument

Elizabeth Whately
Photo: Scottish Parliament, by © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons.

On the European continent, the assisted dying debate is a ship that’s long sailed. But in the UK, the debate still runs hot, as current laws still prohibit euthanasia. That may be about to change in Scotland, as its Parliament prepares to reexamine the issue this coming term. In The Press and Journal, activists on both sides made their case.

A Media-Glorified Choice

Legalization can’t happen soon enough for Alyson Thomson. She feels it’s about time that people without the resources and mobility to make the trek to Switzerland were given the right to die in the comfort of their own homes. Under the current legal situation, these unfortunate souls have no choice but to just suffer — that, or figure out a way to end things quietly at home. 

This is an option frequently glorified in popular media. For example, the recent critically acclaimed UK film Supernova affirms its main character’s choice to take poison rather than face the long agony of early-onset dementia. Writer Harry MacQueen has said he was partly inspired by the documentary film The Suicide Tourist (titled Right to Die? in the UK), which follows two couples’ journeys to the Swiss clinic Dignitas. One elderly couple is refused their request to die together, but wheelchair-bound Craig Ewert is able to see his wish through to its desperately grim conclusion. He can still make his own case for himself, but he makes it fearfully, trembling, with an uncertain look in his eyes that haunts the viewer long after the film is over. After Ewert’s death, his wife insists that she is at peace. But she, too, is shaking.

Yet, according to Thomson, Ewert is one of the lucky ones. She only wishes death could be easier to access for others like him. She trots out a handful of “real faces” behind the current pro-legalization push, concluding:

None of these people wanted to have to tell these very personal experiences; they did it so that no one else has to suffer like this again. They are the collateral damage of an unjust and outdated law. We must listen to what they are saying.

Thomson recognizes that not everyone agrees. But her response is much like the pro-choice bumper sticker: If you don’t like assisted suicide, don’t have one.

Against the Motion

Political commentator and anti-euthanasia activist Jamie Gillies begs to differ. Gillies is the senior press officer for CARE, a Scottish Christian non-profit working to change the legal landscape on behalf of multiple vulnerable demographic groups, including the unborn, the elderly, the addicted, and those trapped in the sex trade. He immediately pegs “assisted dying” as the euphemism that it is, papering over the ghastly reality of something that should not be acceptable in any self-proclaimed “progressive” society. He also makes the practical medical point that “there is no condition that cannot be alleviated through proper palliative care.”

But beyond this, Gillies argues that a move to legalize will have ripple effects not merely for people considering suicide at the end of life, but for all suicidal people:

With both suicide and assisted suicide, we are talking about vulnerable people who are experiencing pain and distress — either mental, physical or emotional — and seeking to bring about an end to their lives. The assumption in both scenarios is that some situations are utterly hopeless and that death is the only solution.

As a society, we should reject this impulse. People do face desperately hard situations in life, whether it is acute mental anguish, terminal illness or non-terminal conditions that take away a person’s faculties. But there is always hope.

Gillies is right. Thomson and other activists push cases of people in extreme physical pain, but they tend to be quieter about people who are simply “tired of life.” Maybe this is because some of them still sense instinctively that there’s something fundamentally wrong with helping depressed people to their own graves. 

Chillingly Prophetic

But this slope is well-greased. Charles Krauthammer predicted this way back in 1997, writing about the Dutch city of Assen. Already, in 1997, perfectly healthy citizens were able to sign off on their own death warrants. Krauthammer’s writing is chillingly prophetic: 

When you see someone on a high ledge ready to jump, you are enjoined by every norm in our society to tackle him and pull him back from the abyss. We are now being asked to become a society where, when the tormented soul on the ledge asks for our help in granting him relief, we oblige him with a push.

They do it in Assen.

And one day, if the course charted by Thomson and Co. proceeds unchecked, they may do it in Glasgow.