This week furious opposition to, and support of, euthanasia, (largely based on the concept of the sanctity of life) has run rampantly alongside furious opposition to, and support of, financial incentives for heroin addicts to become sterilised. The moral questions surrounding these stories are enormous. And the answers overlap.
Two unrelated stories appeared in the news this week. Cristina Odone wrote a deeply personal piece in the Daily Telegraph on refusing to help her father terminate his life, foreshadowing the publication of her report for the Centre for Policy Studies, entitled Assisted Suicide: How the Chattering Classes Got it Wrong. Meanwhile, the first ever UK heroin addict took American charity Project Prevention up on their offer to pay him £200 to have a vasectomy.
One resolves around the circumstances under which we can terminate our own lives; the other revolves around the circumstances under which we can create new ones. Or rather, the circumstances under which we can make sure we don’t create new ones.
Cristina Odone argues that we should channel far more resources into improving palliative care, or even care for our sick loved ones at home if we can. Her argument is that we should not be ending someone’s life just because we, as a nation, are too cheap, lazy or incompetent to give them the necessary care to make their lives bearable. Well, that’s all true, and I doubt any supporters of euthanasia would argue that palliative care shouldn’t be improved for those who choose it. My question is, should people whose suffering won’t end no matter how good their care is, be forced to go on suffering indefinitely, just because Cristina Odone’s own story turned out the way it did?
Because while Odone’s story is incredibly moving, it doesn’t apply universally. As with most personal anecdotes, it is about the personal; the specific. It is, as such, not sound basis for policy-making. If euthanasia was legal – with proper safeguards as is the case in the Netherlands – nobody would force Odone to allow her father’s life to be terminated. But while it is not legal, other people are denied that same luxury of choice that she enjoyed.
Meanwhile, Barbara Harris from North Carolina has found her first UK ‘customer’ for her charity Project Prevention.
Barbara Harris set up her charity after adopting four children whose mother was a crack addict. Their suffering prompted her to give incentives to drug addicts for using long-term or irreversible birth control methods.
Coming hot on the heels of comments from Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt that poorer parents should not expect unlimited government support for large families, a debate about the rights and responsibilities of parenthood has been well and truly sparked.
Drugs charities like Addaction have lambasted the scheme, saying it “has no place” in the UK, and exploits drug addicts at their most vulnerable.
And if the state was bribing drug addicts to have vasectomies or use long-term birth control methods (something else Project Preventions offer), I would agree with them. It would be sinister, verging on horrifying. But a free transaction between two private individuals? If we make those our business, how many other similar transactions are we going to object to? Alcoholics being sold beer? People with learning difficulties going on reality TV shows? Obese people being sold chips? Stupid people being sold, well, anything at all?
If this anonymous man – ‘John’, as the papers are calling him – had decided to have this operation of his own volition, which he says he was planning to do at some point anyway (and surely no-one who one day hopes to be, or more to the point, is ever going to be, a loving, nurturing parent, would change their mind when presented with the offer of £200?) would his ‘vulnerable’ status as a drug addict mean that he would be denied that right to choose?
Both Cristina Odone and Addaction risk creating a society in which the most vulnerable amongst us are not able to make choices for themselves. Sometimes those we deem to be “vulnerable” will base important, life-changing decisions on factors that other people don’t consider valid, be it severe distress, or the prospect of being given two hundred quid. Just as everybody else does.
No matter how “vulnerable” an individual is, they are further invalidated in society when we start making their choices for them. While people are still in control of their faculties, while they are able to love, hate, vote and generally have an opinion one way or the other about any particular issue, surely we shouldn’t presume that we know better than they do, just because they are “vulnerable”? Indeed, these are the very people in society to whom liberty is the most important of all.