Call Me The Chattering Classes

As an opening gambit for engaging with and, one would assume, persuading readers of the veracity of the argument you are about to lay out, insulting those who disagree with you and telling them they are outright wrong- in the very title of your piece- is certainly an interesting move. Such behaviour would be less than surprising in a random blog post, I admit. But “Assisted Suicide – how the chattering classes have got it wrong” is the latest policy report from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), a conservative think tank that “develops and promotes policies to limit the role of the state, to encourage enterprise and to enable the institutions of society – such as families and voluntary organizations – to flourish.” A noble aim, to be sure, which makes the childish title of the report all the more jarring.

Possibly we should not be all that surprised. The reports author, Christina Odone, has form when it comes to the topic of euthanasia, having penned a blog post on the Telegraph site earlier this year with the apparent sole aim of making Dr Evan Harris out to be some kind of crazed, godless murderer (I’m paraphrasing. And for the record Dr Harris doesn’t seem to be any of those things. Well, except maybe godless. But not in the sense I believe Ms Odone means it).

Further, we’re told in the author introduction section of the report that “The story of how her father and step mother fought to keep alive her brother, struck with a rare neurological disorder at the age of seven, was turned into the 1992 film, Lorenzo’s Oil.” So perhaps we can forgive the dismissive title, as obviously Ms Odone has had first hand experience of the painful struggle of a loved one suffering from a crippling disease (Adrenoleukodystrophy, in this case).

Unfortunately Ms Odone gets her argument off to a frankly bizarre start-

“A painless and speedy death, resulting from a hygienic medical procedure that leaves no mess: assisted suicide is the final consumer fantasy. Although illegal in Britain, it is already available to the determined and comfortably-off, who can buy (at £10,000 a shot) an appointment with death at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. Here, completely legally, a physician will inject them with a fatal poison. Why can’t, argue the distinguished and articulate advocates of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, this choice be available to all?”

One paragraph in and I’m already perplexed. Ignoring the fact that she appears to have simply made up the “£10,000 a shot” figure (a bit of googling suggests Dignitas probably charge less than £5,000 for an assisted suicide) , she seems to be framing assisted suicide as some kind of fashion statement for those with more money than sense. But no, it gets better! For the very next paragraph makes it clear-

“The simple answer is that, if we legalise assisted suicide, we risk having a strident élite condemning the less fortunate to a premature death. For it is the marginalised, the disabled, the less articulate and the poor who are most likely to be under pressure to accelerate their death.”

Ah, of course, so it shall be those aforementioned ‘lots of money, less so sense’ who will be doling death out left right and centre to those not fortunate enough to be in their gang?

“Above all, the disadvantaged, fearful of authorities and lost in bureaucracy, may not know how to manipulate the system and may, in comparison to the confident members of the choice-obsessed consumerist élite, be more subject to manipulation by others.”

Wait, now, so not only are they rich, but they are also confident and choice-obsessed (negative attributes, apparently)? And these people will be forcing the disadvantaged to kill themselves? This is starting to take on tones of some of the more entertaining Tea Party diatribes. This isn’t a policy report, it’s a dystopian short story where death squads of the rich stride confidently through a grey urban landscape, the speakers set in their silver-skulled helmets blaring “YOU MUST CHOOSE, CITIZEN”, before gunning down the oppressed masses with diamond encrusted  bullets costing £10,000 a piece…

*cough*

On to paragraph 3…

Thankfully Ms Odone veers wildly back onto slightly more sensible grounds, suggesting that the very people who are campaigning strongest for the legalisation of assisted suicide, such as Terry Pratchett, A.N. Wilson and Patricia Hewitt, are not those vulnerable people who might be coerced into taking their own lives by selfish relatives or out of some sense of obligation. And, pleasingly, Ms Odone spells out the fact that religion has no place in this debate, stating “If this is to be resolved, it should be on the basis of facts, not faith”. Though it should be noted that further on she does blame secularism for placing “the all-powerful self at the centre of the universe”. As opposed to religion, I assume, which places a powerless self at the centre of an omnipotent creators universe.

Unfortunately thus ends the sensibleness, as she then lists the four categories of horror awaiting a society legalising euthanasia. Ms Odone has somewhat stolen my thunder here as I would like to have listed the categories for you with an ironic twist, thus pointing out the inherent flaws in her arguments in a subtly witty manner which would allow me to chuckle into my latté with a wonderful sense of superiority. However apparently lacking any sense of irony she’s gone and done this herself. So we have “Second class human beings!”, “Doctor Death!!”, “The death squad!!!”, and “Slippery slope!!!!!!”. I may have added some !’s for comedic effect, but apparently Ms Odone really thought these were the best titles with which to categorise her arguments. And this bizarre naming scheme doesn’t end there, as chapter 3 is rather wonderfully titled “Be afraid”.

Ms Odone’s remaining arguments, stretched across a good 60 pages, can be unfairly summarised as follows:

  • Chapter 2- Notions of “choice” and “control” appeal to our consumer culture, like the crazy fools that we are, but dying isn’t an individual act as it involves other people and society and stuff.
  • Chapter 3-  Everyone’s getting older, the world is running out of money, persuading people to top themselves ASAP might free up some much needed funds (be afraid!).
  • Chapter 4- These three countries/states have legalised assisted suicide in different ways. Here are some uninformative stats and the occasional tangential horror story. Let this be a lesson to you.
  • Chapter 5- Assisted suicide is illegal. And bad, as I have clearly pointed out above. But we don’t prosecute people for doing it, which is good. So that’s all fine then…
  • Chapter 6- I met someone who was dying because of cancer once and it was a very nice experience. However most of us are going to end up dying horribly in hospital because palliative care in the UK sucks. You’ll be uncomfortable, alone, probably lying in a puddle, and for some reason this should persuade you that assisted suicide is wrong.
  • Chapter 7- Helping someone die is morally difficult. So much so that doctors heads might literally explode. And then where would we be?
  • Chapter 8- Helping someone dies is morally difficult. So much so that regulators heads might literally explode. And then where would we be?
  • Chapter 9- Sometimes people change their mind. Therefore assisted suicide is bad.
  • Chapter 10- We should be improving things (end of life care, communication, support) so that patients don’t feel they want to take their own lives…

Actually that last point is a really good one. And simply goes to highlight that Ms Odone does not understand the issue. Her entire argument boils down to a fear that legalising assisted suicide will “normalise” death to such an extent that it’s a mere nothing, as common place as prescribing an antibiotic and barely as controversial. And once that zeitgeist permeates society the weak, burdensome and vulnerable will come under increased pressure, even implicitly, to end their lives against their will. Her entire argument boils down to the fear of the slippery slope.

The trouble being, such thinking is just plain illogical. She actually believes that “Once assisted suicide becomes legal, it will slide into voluntary euthanasia which in turn will lead to involuntary euthanasia.” While I think society could do with a decent existential crisis, the legalisation of assisted suicide would not suddenly lead to a blasé “let them eat poison” attitude towards the disabled and infirm. We are talking about the annihilation of our loved ones here; no matter how comfortable you are with death, the ending of a life, whether our own or someone elses, is still the biggest thing any of us will face in the cosmic eye blink of consciousness we find ourselves with.

Death isn’t easy, and assisted suicide isn’t trying to make it so. It raises huge moral issues, and indeed forces us to face what it means to be an individual, and specifically an individual who is part of a society. But that’s the joy of it; we are part of a maturing society and hard moral questions are what comes with that. There are no easy answers to the difficult questions in life, that’s why they’re, well, difficult, and they should lead to passionate, well thought out and respectful debate.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Christina Odone has done here. The fact that she, and even more surprisingly the CPS, feel that this document is suitably pitched as a policy report shocks me. While she does lay out some very valid concerns (which I happily admit I haven’t addressed. If Ms Odone happens to be using a pseudonym and is one of my *checks online* yup, 17 twitter followers and she’d like to discuss further, I’d only be too delighted) the tone in which she pitches the debate is disgraceful.

She sets it up from the get-go with an insulting title which frames anyone who disagrees with her as one of the “chattering masses”, and goes on to paint a picture of fear, with some ill defined cadre of the rich elite forcing death on the vulnerable. Her final sentence sums up her mildly paranoid and deeply disrespectful mind-set perfectly- “A society cleansed of the feeble, the infirm, the imperfect: it is a template others, in history, have sought. We should remember at what cost.” The fact Ms Odone views proponents of legalised assisted suicide in such light strikes me as profoundly sad, and leaves me hoping with all of my being that this report has absolutely zero impact on any policy a hopefully more rational society may develop.

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2 Responses to Call Me The Chattering Classes

  1. Jeremy Hughes says:

    Good post.

  2. Pingback: skepticireland.com | Blog | Your Right To Discuss Your Right to Die

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