27 Oct, 10 | by Iain Brassington
The Centre for Policy Studies has recently published a report on euthanasia, authored by Cristina Odone. It’s available to download here, though it would seem that you can also buy a paper version for a tenner. It’s amazing for the sheer poverty of the argument; I might never have thought that so much specious nonsense could be crammed into 60 pages had I not seen it. Indeed, there’s a good part of me that finds the whole thing hilarious – and it would be, were it not so dispiriting.
There’s barely a paragraph that doesn’t have some objection; but I’m aware that I sometimes go on a bit, so I’m going to limit myself to highlighting a few particular highlights. But, really, if you’ve a spare moment, it shouldn’t be hard to find other howlers.
Let’s begin on p 2, where Odone asserts that
[t]he legalisation of assisted suicide and voluntary euthansia was once thought unthinkable in this country, where it was associated with the Nazis’ secret euthanasia programme.
Wow. This has to be one of the fastest ever Godwins. Naturally, there’s no evidence that euthanasia was ever associated with Nazism by anyone, whether there’s any justification for any such association, or whether what the Nazis got up to really was euthanasia (and cf p 23, where she goes along with the Nazi euphemism that dressed murder up as euthanasia). There’s no examination of the difference between asking for help to die because you don’t want to live, and being ordered to die because someone else doesn’t want you to. There’s no comprehension of the fact that, if euthansia is wrong, it’s got nothing to do with Nazism (or of the fact that not everything done by Nazis is de facto wrong: Nazis also wore shoes, walked the dog, and gave each other birthday presents, all of which are OK even though they were done by dispicable people who did vile stuff at other times). Because that’d undermine the rhetorical point.
While an appeal to bare facts is never going to amount to an ethical argument, it’s good to note that Odone says that the debate about euthanasia and assisted dying should be approached “on the basis of facts” (p 4). Admirably, she manages to sustain her appeal to facts for a whole 37 words before her spirit breaks and she has to resort to speculation and – frankly – her imagination. The giveaway is the phrase “[t]he danger is” (p 5), which serves as a smokescreen behind which all kinds of stuff can be smuggled in – to wit: the claims about second-class humans, claims about “Doctor Death”, claims about an “all-powerful death squad” (seriously – this is a group of people “who would again and again send people to their death” (p 48)), and claims about a slippery slope (yawn). In respect of this last point, Odone speaks with utter certainty:
Once assisted suicide becomes legal, it will slide into voluntary euthanasia which in turn will lead to involuntary euthanasia. [p 6; emphasis mine]
Of course, there’s no evidence, empirical or argumentative, offered for this assertion. You weren’t expecting it, were you?
The canard about second class people and some poeple not being of equal value to others is repeated throughout the pamphlet, and it’s twinned with another: that assisted death is supported mainly by the “chattering classes”, who’re sophisticated enough to defend themselves from it:
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. (p 2)
This élite pops up in several places, too; and it’s always presented in terms of middle-class people who’d kill their aunts as soon as look at them, but who’re capable of manipulating the system to avoid being bumped off themselves. And it’s interesting that things are always this way around: the threat is always there, with only a privileged group able to avoid it. At the same time, it’s an “educated élite… in charge of assisted suicide” (p 49). We’ve seen this obsequious, Uriah-Heap-ish ever so ‘umble, fawning, and false distinction between the alien élite and poor little put-upon you elsewhere, of course: it’s the bread-and-butter of right-wing populist blather, whether in the mouth of Peter Hitchens or Sarah Palin.
Odone devotes a whole chapter to palliative care, apparently believing that the lack of palliative care is the only reason why people might seek assisted death, and that they wouldn’t seek it if PC were there. She trots out the claim that palliative care isn’t available in the Netherlands, quoting Ilora Finlay’s claim that “[s]pecialist palliative care does not exist [there]” – which must come as a surprise to those working in Holland’s growing state-funded hospice sector. If you believe Odone, places like Oregon and the Netherlands are now much less safe places to live, especially if you happen to be socially vulnerable. It’s just a shame that the evidence suggests otherwise.
Odone seems also to get herself into a terrible muddle in other ways. On one hand, she invokes Shipman (and the argumentum ad shipmanum must be gaining ground on the argumentum ad hitlerum in these circles) to suggest that legalising some forms of assisted dying brings with it a potential for abuse (p 40) – and, while we’re here, notice the elision of murder and assisted death, and the apparent failure to notice that illegality didn’t do much to stop Shipman anyway. On the other, she quotes a Dutch doctor who has carried out euthanasia several times as saying that “[t]he idea that each case gets easier and easier is just rubbish” (p 44). So which is it? Is it the case that there’re doctors who’re dying to kill, and yet are somehow held back by the gossamer chains of the law? Or is it that – as is suggested by the interview with, er, a doctor – they’re thoughtful and anxious about these things, and care deeply about the justification for each instance of assistance?
I could go on. Like I said, it’s a 60-page document; my print-off is replete with marginalia along the lines of “This is false”, “Stop scaremongering” and “Don’t you undermine your own point here?”, and I could go on for ages. I’ve not even begun on the “big society” claim – you know, the Tory idea that’s going to see public services privatised and social care cauterised. But there’s one more thing that is worth raising.
It’s this: Odone’s pamphlet expresses sympathy with the fears of the vulnerable about what assisted dying might mean for them. But what she doesn’t do is engage with those fears and ask whether they’re well-founded. Instead, she amplifies them. I’ve never seen any piece of legislation on assisted dying that isn’t heavily circumscribed. One of the strongest objections to the current Bill in Scotland is that “assistance” doesn’t clearly differentiate killing and assistance – but I fully expect that to be remedied by the second reading. But even then, advocates of assisted dying are painstaking to be clear that what they’re proposing is not about forcing people to die.
Yet the myth persists. And it persists, I’d suggest, because of documents like this, which lazily throw in allusions to Shipman and Mengele, and which overlook the obvious moral, logical and legal distinction between voluntary and involuntary death.
Let’s allow that there are members of vulnerable groups who are scared by assisted dying. Much of this fear, I’d suggest, is caused by the speculations and downright paranoia of some of assisted dying’s most vocal opponents.