The subject of assisted suicide periodically arises in the Great Britain. And when it does, the debate is as fierce as it has been in the United States.
This time around, controversy has been raging for weeks after Sky Television decided to air the actual death of a man from Harrowgate, North Yorkshire, as he prepared to die at a suicide clinic called Dignitas in Switzerland. Dignitas has seen several British citizens use its services to end painful and debilitating lives, but this was the first time one of their procedures was actually broadcast on British television.
Sky (Rupert Murdoch’s news outlet in Britain) produced a rather moving piece where the sufferer himself, Craig Ewert, makes the case for his ability to take his own life to save himself suffering. He even, between gasps of oxygen, manages to pose some interesting questions to the Christian opponents of the procedure.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made clear his opposition to assisted suicide and any legislation that would make it easier. This was prompted by a query during Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons, where the MP who represents Craig Ewert’s district expressed objection to the broadcast. Brown replied to the query.
I believe that it is necessary to ensure that there is never a case in this country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it is the expected thing to do.
Currently, it is technically illegal to aide or abet a suicide in Britain. This is an ongoing problem for people who are seriously and chronically ill and who wish to end their lives and it is a third-rail for politicians and most do not seem willing to address the ambiguity in the law that was originally passed in the late 1960s.
One has to wonder if in fact the member of parliament, Phil Willis, was not representing his constituent and merely attempting to get himself some attention during Prime Minister’s Question Time. He obviously believed that those who support assisted suicide in his constituency are in the minority and one suffering man could easily be thrown under a bus for his political career.
The MP asked whether the broadcast of the suicide was “in the public interest or is it simply distasteful voyeurism?” It was obvious from this question that he had not seen the program, as it has not been broadcast, nor seen his constituent’s appeal.
Sky defended its decision to broadcast the documentary by saying:
The question of a person’s right to die at a time of their choosing is an issue that arouses strong views on both sides. As a broadcaster, we believe that there is a role for television to inform public debate about even the most challenging subjects.
It is no longer a crime in Britain to actually commit suicide. Prosecuting a dead person seems to be seen as rather unreasonable, not to mention rather difficult, although such trials have occurred in the country’s past. The problem boils down to the law which threatens those who help facilitate the act with punishment of up to 14 years in prison.
However, according to an article in the Independent, just ” a handful have been arrested, and no relative or friend of the more than 100 UK citizens who have gone abroad to Dignitas clinic has been prosecuted under the 1961 Suicide Act.”
The issue has gained additional attention in the UK after Margo MacDonald, a member of the Scottish Parliament, known as an MSP, highlighted the issue due to her own chronic and terminal Parkinson’s disease. She is attempting to make assisted suicide legal in Scotland. This would be a challenge, as the Scots, both Kirk and Church of Scotland, are far more religious than their English counterparts.
No politician, barring a very few, seems to want to get near this issue for fear of offending their more religious constituents. This is despite the fact that Britain can be seen for the most part as a mostly secular country.
As a result, the growing trend has been for sufferers to bypass parliament and go directly to the High Court to force action on the issue. The documentary to be shown on television is merely a stepping up of the campaign to aim directly for the sympathy of the public on this most difficult of subjects.
The subject of “death with dignity” has reared its head again in the British consciousness. It looks doubtful any change will come about in the law — yet one wonders how long politicians will be able to turn a blind eye to the subject. Death is, after all, an issue that affects every single citizen of their country.