This speech was delivered at a Cambridge Union debate, opposing the motion “This House Believes We Have The Right To Die”.
Today’s debate is about a very serious subject. It is quite literally about a matter of life and death. We should treat it with the seriousness, but also the honesty, that it deserves.
Speaking in favour of this motion are two very distinguished speakers, and two speakers who I am sure will become distinguished very soon. All four of them are perfectly reasonable people. They will speak to you seriously, movingly and above all, reasonably.
They will tell you heart-breaking stories of terminally ill people who suffer from unbearable pain. They will blame their suffering on the cruel and unforgiving laws that exist against assisted suicide.
Having softened you up, these very reasonable people, speaking in those reasonable tones, will ask you to suspend your moral judgement and to believe in many unreasonable things.
They will ask you to believe, firstly, that killing someone is a form of medical care. That there are some people whose lives are so wretched that they are quite literally better off dead than alive. That, in other words, there are people whose lives are not worth living. Of course, they won’t put it so bluntly. They may even resent the matter being described so bluntly — but that is the reality of their position.
They will not tell you about the ugly, grubby origins of the pro-euthanasia movement, which are to be found in the cruel social Darwinism of the 19th century — which Cambridge did so much to spread across the world like a virus and which held that some people simply should not be alive because their lives were worthless.
In the Netherlands, it is legal to kill disabled infants
They will not tell you that Dignity in Dying, the United Kingdom’s oldest and most influential pro-euthanasia group, was founded by an eugenicist and drew most of its support from eugenicists.
But they will say, ah, this is all ancient history. This is a different movement, a modern movement. We only want it for a few people, who are going to die soon anyway, and who suffer from intolerable pain. This has nothing to do with the horrors of the past. I am convinced they actually believe this, that they are sincere.
They won’t tell you how in almost every country which has legalised euthanasia, the eligibility criteria have been expanded over and over again.
Twenty years ago, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia. At the time, it was only available to consenting adults who had a terminal illness and were experiencing unbearable suffering. In other words, what most supporters of assisted suicide in this country claim they want to enact.
Today, in the Netherlands, it is legal to kill disabled infants. It is legal to kill children over the age of 12. It is legal to kill people with dementia who don’t remember they had consented to be killed. One woman, who suffered from dementia, was physically held down by a doctor and her relatives so that she could be injected with a poison and killed. The doctor was acquitted.
The Dutch government now wants to expand eligibility even further. They want to allow children between the age of 1 and 12 to be eligible for euthanasia. The current Dutch government has accepted a proposal to allow old people, who are perfectly well but feel they have finished living their lives, to kill themselves medically.
Why is that? Why does virtually every country which legalised euthanasia expand its remit further and further away from the terminally ill? It’s because they think — and they want you to believe that — dying is a “right”.
Human rights are good, right? Everyone should have them. If dying is a human right, how can we limit its access to euthanasia those who suffer from terminal illness? If you say something is a human right, and exclude a group — most of the population in fact — that is by definition discrimination. If this is really all about rights, why should a perfectly healthy person who wants to commit suicide be deprived of his autonomy to kill himself? If someone is standing on a bridge, ready to jump, what right do we have to stop him from killing himself and limit his right to die?
Maybe the speakers for the proposition will accuse me of fear-mongering. Yet, this is exactly how this logic played out in Canada. In 2017, Canada legalised the right to die for terminally ill people who were close to death. Exactly two years later, a Canadian court struck down the law as unconstitutional.
The court did so because, it said, it is discriminatory to only allow the terminally ill to die through assisted suicide. Of course, it was right. Now, in Canada, anyone with a serious illness or disability with no prospect of improvement can choose to die via assisted suicide. Until last month, Canada was going to legalize assisted suicide because of mental illness — because it would be discrimination against the mentally ill to do otherwise.
In fact, until a few months ago, if you called the health advice hotline in the province of Saskatchewan in Canada, one option was for anti-suicide help; another option was for assisted suicide. Think of the message that this sends to those who are struggling with mental health issues.
They may deny it, but that is the inevitable logical conclusion of having a right to die.
The supporters of this motion will ask you to believe that the “right to die” will come with strict and effective safeguards. No one is going to be pressured into killing themselves. They will not mention that right now, as we speak, people in Canada are killing themselves because of deafness, because they were in a wheelchair, because they had allergies. Surprise, the people who have committed suicide for these reasons had one thing in common. They were all poor and could not access adequate care or social support.
Most human societies in history killed those they considered undesirable
One woman, Sophia, killed herself because she was allergic to cigarette smoke and to chemicals in cleaning products, but she was too poor to afford housing which would not worsen her allergies. Another woman, a veteran who participated in the Paralympics, tried for years to get a wheelchair ramp from the government. Eventually, the caseworker asked if she had considered killing herself instead. Why not? She was legally eligible, after all, since she was disabled and would never walk again, and dying is a “right”.
Those are only cases which have been reported in Canadian media. We only know about Sophia, the woman who died because of poverty and because of her allergies, because she told her family to publicise her case after she had died so that it would never happen again to anyone else.
Yet we are here tonight, having this debate, ignoring the fact that in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, a country wealthier than this one in fact, disabled people are killing themselves because they are poor, and the government, which refuses to give them enough money to live on, is paying for them to die.
They will not tell you about those people who are coerced into dying because they want you to believe this is about autonomy.
Once the illusion of autonomy is shattered, so does their case.
It is not a coincidence that the people who are featured in pro-assisted suicide publicity campaigns are all articulate, well-off middle-class people. They do not face socio-economic pressures on their very existence — unlike Sophia, who died because she had allergies.
They want you to forget that we live in a world which all too often still does not value the lives of the poor, of the sick, of the disabled, which views them as an expensive burden.
Remember the fact that we take care of elderly and disabled people as we do, using public money, is a relatively new development in human history. Remember that the welfare state we take for granted is a very new development, and that it could disappear as quickly as it came into being. Most human societies in history killed those they considered undesirable, and we risk returning to that world.
At a time when healthcare systems are on the verge of collapse all around the developed world, when intergenerational economic inequalities are worse than they have ever been, how long will it be before the right to die becomes a duty to die?
If you think this is too far-fetched, consider that a former prime minister of Japan said publicly that he wished old people would hurry up and die. 30 per cent of the Japanese population is over the age of 65. They require pensions and expensive healthcare and social care. Given the experiences of the countries that have legalized assisted suicide, given what we know about the cruelty of human nature, is it really so outlandish to fear what the invention of a “right to die” will do for the poor, for the disabled, for the vulnerable in our society?
Now, there are genuinely hard cases, of terminally ill people in unbearable pain, and the better side of our human nature wants to do something, anything, to help them. The solution is better healthcare, better social care, better palliative care. It is not to offer them a syringe of the same poison which is used in execution chambers in America and to call it healthcare. That is a perversion of the English language.
The solution is not to create a “right to die” which will inevitably be abused and enable some of the worst human instincts which we thought we suppressed a long time ago.
I urge the House to oppose this motion.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe