I’m all in favour of consistency, especially when it comes to death. When the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 the great and the good assured us we would be talking about only a trickle of 'hard cases.' The trickle has become a flood of 200,000 cases a year, and to accommodate this babies have been re-termed foetuses. There are many strong arguments in favour of abortion and many, heart-aching stories. There are others who argue babies die for social and economic convenience. There is truth on both sides.
A similar argument is being conducted with Lord Falconer’s Right To Die Bill, which will no doubt be passed. I accept it is much easier for the healthy to pontificate, and that my mind might change if I or a loved one found themselves as one of those ‘hard’ cases currently used to justify legalised killing. Then again it may be a case that hard cases make bad law.
When the Right To Die became law in the Netherlands 1,923 people were killed in 2006. The trajectory is 6000 – 7000 by the end of 2014. Rising at a rate of 15% a year one assumes they will eventually catch up with the abortion figures. In the Netherlands new classes of people are being offered the right to die including the demented and the depressed, the lonely and recently bereaved. There are now mobile death units of travelling doctors trained to kill with minimum pain. Just in case not all have got the message, activists are campaigning for lethal pills to be made available to anyone over 70 who wish to die. In Belgium the service is offered to children.
There is consistency in this. At both ends of the spectrum the socially inconvenient are spared the horrors of life. At least though the aged have lived and are offered the choice, though, with familial and societal pressure one can assume the right to die will in time become an expectation, if not a duty - at least for the poor, the easily swayed, or those seeking to do well for their children
Where then is the inconsistency?
It’s raised in the question of how many supporters of abortion and the right to die are also opposed to the death penalty? It seems inconsistent to support the one and not the other. With ageing populations and spiralling national debts one can see the convenience in supporting the right to die. One can see the convenience in removing a mistake at the other end of the spectrum. Why then should the murderer be spared?
There are many familiar arguments against such a course:
a) It is barbaric. But then barbarism is a relative term and like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In this case Humpty Dumpty had it about right: 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean. Question is, did the barbarians see themselves as barbarians? Will people in the future see what we now take for granted as ‘barbaric’?
b) There have been miscarriages of justice? The thought of wrongly applied ‘Do not resuscitate’ notices placed on patients’ beds immediately come to mind.
c) The most puzzling argument is that the death penalty causes unnecessary pain. Why then are the old being offered medicalised death? If it is painless for them it should be painless for the convicted murderer. If it is not painless, then it shouldn’t be offered to the old.
In the best dystopian tradition the most consistent solution might be extending 'the right to die' to long term prisoners – in fact to all prisoners. I cannot see how anyone who champions the right to die could object. It would be a matter of choice and societal pressure. Equality within the law.