Friday, 31 July 2009

Assisted Suicide

I do of course understand that the Law Lords' Debby Purdy verdict regarding her appeal is about clarification not about the rights or wrongs of assisted suicide.

Two points, the first personal, the second about the idea of clarity.

1. The personal

My mother was ill for a very long time, long before she gave birth to my younger brother and I. She had suffered near fatal rheumatic fever at 14 in Romania, spent a year out of school, then, at 16, ventured to Budapest all by herself, to train as a photographer, but some four years later was caught up in a fascist-militia raid, and spent months in two concentration camps, being reduced to a skeleton in the process, but surviving. After the liberation of the second camp she made a very dangerous Primo Levi-like journey back to Hungary. Back in Budapest - where she married my father -she was advised not to have children but had two and became a press photographer. But her heart was in a very bad state - the camps would not have helped - and she couldn't keep up the physical work of following the news so she worked in the press lab instead (and occasionally at home). In 1956 she walked, as we all did, across the Austrian border and when we set up a new life in England, she worked in photo labs again as long as she could. But she was ill. Her mitral valve hardly worked and she went through a series of operations under the pioneering heart specialist Magdi Yacoub, whom she adored. But these were the early days of valve transplants and she caught infections.

I mention this because people arrive where they are by various routes. They are not just the problem at the end. I think she led a heroic life and, for all the difficult times we had, I eventually developed the highest regard for her. (note: How exactly to put this? I loved her of course, but I had no real idea of her as a person with a full history until much later. The highest regard? Respect? Admiration? All that.)

The problem for us was that she was in great pain and did not want to live. She kept talking about euthanasia (a topic we abhorred) and made attempts on her own life, one of which eventually succeeded. The worst of these times were after I left home. While home we were firmly against euthanasia, but now I think back on it, it was not for the best of reasons. Maybe I had better just speak for myself. So then, I (speaking for myself as a teenager) regarded the euthanasia talk as being in some way about me. It was morbid talk. Her desire for death was impinging on my desire to live. It also put me - and this may not have been entirely to my discredit - in a difficult position, in presenting me with a moral problem I was incapable of facing at the time. It was like being asked whether I approved of her desire. It was not that I didn't (though I didn't) it was simply being presented with the problem at all that was hard.

It is hard when young to have any conception of other people's suffering. Hard any time in fact, though it is possible to learn a little.

Since then I have lost a good number of friends, some in pain, desperately suffering, some stripped of dignity. Now, selfishly enough, I can imagine their suffering in so far as how I might feel were I in their situation. 'Don't get old,' has been said to me by both father and late father-in-law, inevitably with a smile. But the alternative, as Churchill once pointed out, is not necessarily better.

So now I think assisted suicide can be desirable. I think Dignitas has a right to refer to dignity in its name. I think the law's view, as I understand it, that people have a right to deal with their own lives while they are alive is the right one. Yes, we need safeguards, yes plenty of them, but the reverse of my teenage moral dilemma also holds true. I don't think we have a right - that anybody has a right - to insist that others should suffer so we feel better about it. If you have a religious conviction that is fine. You are welcome to hold it and try to persuade, but no right to dictate.

2. Clarity

I am for clarity rather than fudge. I know fudge allows for human frailty, human uncertainty, complex circumstances, and normally I find all these things - human frailty, human uncertainty and complex circumstances - far preferable to demands for perfection, purity,certainty and simplification. But fudge in law means fear and arbitrariness. I think it is an obligation, in law at least, to be as clear as humanly possible. Fudge will still remain because we cannot always be absolutely clear about anything, but at least we will have tried to be consistent.

I have sometimes wondered whether to prefer an anarchic (small a) state with arbitrary punishments or a byzantine (small b) state with minimal corruption. I suspect that is the kind of choice we are often having to make. School rules, game rules, ethical rules, laws of the land etc. The old discussion in Eastern Europe was between a legal state and a party state. There was general longing for a legal state for obvious reasons. You couldn't just be arrested and disappear in a prison for a start.

It might be argued that the precedent in the case of assisted suicide was entirely on the side of no prosecution. I don't think that is a good argument. Precedent is good. It can be very good. But it only works if it is crystallised - as far as it can be crystallised - in law, after discussion. Discussion is good. Is always good.

Unless you prefer the idea of the Good God / Good Emperor / Good Gauleiter with absolute authority. An idea of last resort. Not first, or second.

The last part (last part only) of the poem 'Apropos Palladio', in the forthcoming Bloodaxe book, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems.

Come to me, whisper the stones. Spread out your hands
And measure me, I will be conformable.
You can wash yourself in my light.
I am clean as the sky after clouds have passed.
I am a model of the universe in which there are
No black holes, no rogue meteors. My sun
Has no storms, my oceans shift to song
That settles in your educated ears
Like the music of the spheres.

My oceans shift to song. Song is what has been
And what continues whatever the price tag,
Whoever the singer. Clarity of form is clarity
In all and every light. Even clouds have clarity
That comprehends. The meteor has clarity.
The black hole in the mind is a hole in clarity.
Seabirds hang on thermals and hear the clarity
Of the storm. See, I can draw a clear line
Around your hand that washes the world clear.
The eye cleansed by the music of the ear.

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