online: 3 september 2004

2 september 2004 assisted dying

A Parliamentary Select Committee of the British House of Lords is inviting evidence relevant to proposed legislation called 'Assisted dying for the terminally ill bill'

to the Select Committee:

Denis O'Brien has suggested that I send you my thoughts about this question:

1. My immediate thought is that I would not want to shorten my own life, or that of a relative, because, in such an action, we do not know what we are doing. The nature of life-and-death is beyond us. Our thoughts are the result of partial and changing knowledge which itself is not of the same scale or character as that of existence itself.

2. But then I remember the awfulness, to most of us, of the sight of someone suffering severe and endless pain, or of 'becoming a vegetable' as we put it. But a tree is a vegetable... would I prefer to be a tree than to be reduced to dust? This question may sound silly but that may be because we are, in this matter, approaching the limits of thought and language. There may be no wholly satisfactory answer in traditional terms.

3. However, thinking of the continuing extension of length of life (due to the improvement of food and living conditions and to the scientific treatment of what were once deadly illnesses, and particularly the use of devices to keep people alive when they would have died naturally) I see why this question arises now. Given this new fact it is surely 'natural' (in a new sense of the word) to change old laws intended for the former condition so that it becomes no longer criminal to shorten lives that are being maintained by technology alone, or when consciousness has gone, or when thought has become seemingly impossible. I believe that the new conditions that can extend life are now part of nature.

4. In the future our descendents may readily accept the new democratic power to extend or to shorten life, as they may accept democratic control over warfare, personal defence, and even such novelties as voluntary suicide or other kinds of justified killing... I recall reading of tribal cultures in which everyone, ill or well, chooses their own time of ritual death which is solemnly or even joyfully enacted and celebrated in a way that may to them be socially healthy.

5. Given these brief thoughts, what is my conclusion?... Probably it is to accept, reluctantly, some modest and limited changes in law to permit experiments in 'assisted dying' but with the precaution of having a public rethink every 10 to 20 years when people may have had experience of the new practice. No one can predict how their reactions to new technologies may change with experience. Think for instance of television, the internet and the mobile phone. There was no public demand for these before people had experienced them, but now the demand is immense as most of us have come to rely on them.

6. However, if you recommend this change in the law, I ask that your proposal be put first to the vote of everyone - using new technology to make that possible. It's time we trusted each other and ceased to rely on the decisions of an expert minority, however well-informed or well-intended. The essential is not to accord with old laws and principles but to open ourselves to public learning from collective experience.

7. As an example of democratic responsibility, I think of the amazing safety record of two-way roads on which nearly everyone is permitted to drive in a lethal vehicle. Millions do so each day with almost no collisions between opposing streams of traffic (tragic as such collisions are when they occur accidentally or under the influence of fatigue, drugs or alcohol). It's time to trust ourselves collectively - as well as to protect us from each other when at extremities.

8. Undoubtedly this proposed bill disrupts inherited ideas of the sanctity of life and upsets religious beliefs. I hope that these remarks will help to show the disruption to be an inevitable, even a natural, change in human circumstance. I see it as a consequence of changes several centuries ago that led to the industrial revolution and altered the nature of life.

john chris jones,

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