One of the defining features of a functioning state is usually taken to be that the state holds a monopoly of violence – especially violence towards its own citizens. There are however a number of situations in which the state sanctions killing, or at least does not punish it. Putting aside the activities of the armed forces and police, the other common situations fall under the umbrella of what might (surprisingly) be thought of as the public health. They include, in jurisdictions where they are allowed (not criminalised): termination of pregnancy, suicide and euthanasia.
I discern a number of influences at play when decisions are being made about the exact circumstances under which the state will allow ending of life. There may be others, but as a starter my list is:
The degree to which the life under consideration is regarded, by the person living it, as so burdensome as to no longer be worth living;
The social value of the life under consideration – that is, how others view the individual per se or as a result of any condition from which they suffer;
The practical, technical or emotional difficulties inherent in the process of ending the life – what we might call barriers to implementation;
The degree to which differences of opinion have to be taken into consideration in arriving at a final decision.
These sorts of ideas are encapsulated in enabling legislation, of course each being given different weight according to the exact circumstances.
I was recently listening to a talk about medical assistance in dying (MAID) given by the historian Kevin Yuill during a meeting in Jersey. Yuill introduced me to another angle on this, which is thinking about the motivational influences: not how the decision is made but something like why it is being made at all. Yuill suggests that in the history of euthanasia and assisted suicide, the main motivating factors have been ideas about utility and compassion. Utility has featured most brutally in pro-euthanasia and eugenicist ideas about ballast existence and while compassion could be instrumentalised in support of these endeavours, it also has a more altruistic side. More recently however, an appeal to autonomy has come to dominate: euthanasia and suicide (assisted or not) are argued to be, in the right circumstances, individual choices which should not be blocked by authoritarian government actions.
This proposition struck a chord – when I speak with friends and colleagues about MAID, the response of those who support it is that it is a personal choice that they would like to be able to make for themselves if they were in a position where it was relevant. If they have thought further, it is only to consider briefly (and dismiss as avoidable) the slippery slope argument.
And the appeal to autonomy describes neatly how the campaign for medical assistance in dying (which in the UK means physician-assisted suicide) is being framed. What is going on in the public debate about MAID legislation is not that supporters are contributing to a dispassionate assessment of the pros and cons of a momentous change in the law – with potential direct and indirect harms being considered as well as potential individual benefits. Instead the idea is promoted (marketed) that MAID is evidently something people will want to choose and that preventing that choice is wrong. The emotive case histories/horror stories, celebrity endorsement and misrepresentation of the alternatives as the quiet dignity of assisted suicide versus giving oneself up to the horrors of end-of-life or palliative care, are all designed to arouse anger about a right denied.
When the exercise of personal choice becomes the paramount consideration we are in a society where the individual’s wishes overshadow questions of the public good. Now how could that not strike a chord…