A Slippery Slope?  


In Parliament this week (July 18th, 2014) there will be a debate regarding assisted suicide. Lord Falconer, a barrister and ex-Lord Chancellor in the government of Tony Blair, has introduced a Bill in the Lords which is called “The Assisted Dying Bill”. The Bill would have the effect of legalising help given to someone who wanted to commit suicide. It would not permit, however, such assistance in all circumstances. The law proposed requires that the person assisted to die should:

1.     be adult;

2.     have a terminal illness – defined as a life expectancy of no more than 6 months;

3.     have the necessary mental capacity to make such a decision;

4.     have the ability to make a voluntary and informed decision without external pressure;

5.     have been fully informed of the options for palliative care

all to be certified by two independent doctors

There would also be a 14 day 'period of reflection' after the medical consultation prior to receiving the prescribed medicine for the act of suicide. The 'help' would consist only of providing the medicine: not its administration. At the moment it is possible to be helped to commit suicide in Zurich, but this requires that the person be not only sufficiently healthy to take the medicine, but also to undertake the journey. Which means in turn that one cannot leave the decision to the last moment. And this implies a requirement to commit suicide before necessary, not to mention the cost – in Switzerland – for the person himself and, probably, a friend.  At the moment, there are no safeguards in this country which apply to a journey to Zurich such as those proposed by in the Bill. There is the possibility of an investigation by the police here regarding the independence of the decision, but this would occur only after the suicide had taken place. A bit late.

Those who propose this change to the law say that it is an act of compassion. They assert that every one of us has a right to choose when to die. To have the obligation to continue to live when life has become unsupportable because of intense pain, the loss of independence or even their imminence is not fair or justifiable. Nor is it reasonable to require that the person die here alone and without the help that could prevent the suicide itself from being another - and final - act of suffering. After all, committing suicide without pain is not easy without the cocktail of medicines which only a doctor can provide. I am not convinced that I would have the courage to make use of this law, but I would be very much comforted to know that it existed. And according to the opinion polls I am part of a majority of 80% of the population, including two ex-archbishops – Desmond Tutu and George Carey (the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury), but not the present incumbent (as to which more later).

But what we see in opposition to the Bill is the deployment of an argument which I have never understood"we're on a slippery slope" or one thing inevitably leads to another”. They predict a free for all, with death upon demand. Now clearly one thing does lead to another in the physical world – that is how it works - the law of cause and effect. However, this idea can be badly misused. For instance, to explain why we have professional criminals, we might say that they will have arrived in this situation because, having committed a minor crime, one thing led to another and so they end up living a life of crime. The same idea is often applied to drug-addicts. And it is true that someone who is a hardened criminal will generally have started out with something relatively minor and a drug addict on crack cocaine may well have started out with a softer drug such as cannabis.

But committing a minor crime does not inevitably lead to being a hardened criminal and using cannabis does not inevitably lead to being a heroin addict or crack cocaine user. It is impossible to say of our own lives as individuals that one thing inevitably and predictably leads to another. There may be a tendency for the taking of a certain path – a genetic or environmental 'push'.  We are, however, very complex as individuals and so it is not possible to say in advance how any one of us will react.  Our world is even more complex and it is certainly not possible to say how whole populations will act. Which means that whether there would be any further change following thepassing into law of the proposed Bill on assisted suicide – and if so in which direction - is impossible to say.

But those opposing it say that we will be inevitably set on a slippery slope leading down to death on demand. In fact, this proposed law contains the seeds of its own destruction – what we call a sunset clause. The law will automatically cease to have effect after 10 years in the absence of a confirmatory vote by Parliament. Thus, there are at least 3 possibilities – that it will continue only until 2024, that it will continue indefinitely or that it will be replaced by a more liberal law after the 10 years or even before then, as its opponents fear. As a supporter of the proposed change in the law, I certainly cannot be sure of the result. Public opinion has a tendency to change in unpredictable ways. So then to use the slippery slope argument means that those opposing it are somehow able to see into the future, one where there is a wave of opinion which will inevitably lead in one direction – the wrong direction.  They evidently think that we are all going to Hell in a hand-cart rather than perhaps abandoning dogma in favour of finding ways to show true compassion to those in desperate circumstances.

But for this reason they have effectively decided to initiate a debate on the more extreme forms of legislation which could have been put forward regarding a right to die, but without being open as to what they are doing. They are using possible successor laws as a type of camouflage to cover the difficulty that they have in finding a convincing argument against the very moderate proposals actually being put forward. They of course have the right to try to influence the democratic debate, but I'm not convinced that it is ethical to use this type of dishonest propaganda. Even more so when ther own position is not exactly clear.  The present Archbishop, Justin Welby's own child was very badly injured in a car accident when she was only 7 years old.  Instead of insisting on the prolongation of her life, he and his wife consented to her life-support system being turned off.  Many other parents have done this in similar circumstances.  It was their right and undoubtedly a decision motivated by compassion.  I cannot however distinguish in any meaningful way this decision from the right proposed by the Assisted Dying Bill. All this indicates the intrinsic difficulty for the Church or indeed any religion in a democracy. It is difficult for them to accept the will of the people over their (current) understanding of what is the will of their god.

To see the whole question in greater perspective, however, it may be useful to take another example of a supposed slippery slope, this time leading from death to life.  In Great Britain, burning at the stake, the means of death prefered by the Church, was finally abolished at the end of the 18th century.  There were, however, still 220 capital crimes on the books. These included treason, homicide, stealing a goat, shoplifting and felling trees in a public park – all this with the approval of the established Church.

The cruelty of the so-called Bloody Code, which existed explicitly to protect the property of the rich at any cost, was nonetheless moderated from time to time, albeit not by the Church.  Many juries showed their compassion and refused to convict at all.  Others juries, in convicting someone of theft, would arbitrarily fix the value of the stolen goods at less than the level which defined the crime as carrying the death penalty – 5 shillings!  Obviously we could say that all this was but the start of a slippery slope leading to anarchy. No doubt many did. And now we can see the proof – because, only 170 years later, in 1969, the death penalty for murder was finally abolished and in 1998 it was abolished for treason.

So then just 2 centuries later we have seen the total abolition of capital punishment.  A very slippery slope.  Well perhaps not very slippery and not very sloping.  We cannot even say that it was an inevitable change. There is still a wish amongst many people to "bring back hanging", so that those of us who are against it need to continue to make the argument.

It seems that our democracy has over the years decided that we should become a more compassionate society. I hope that it will continue in that direction. But I for one cannot be at all sure which way the the future will slope or how slippery it will be. What will help in the present is if the Assisted Dying Bill becomes law.

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy