Buggers’ Clubs And The Right To Die

“If this Bill goes through, so that buggery is no longer a criminal offence provided it is done in private and with no boys concerned, then it will be a charter for these buggers’ clubs. They will be able to spring up all over the place. I can assure your Lordships that it is a very real risk.”

Thus spake Lord Goddard in 1965, when their Lordships were debating the Sexual Offences Bill, which went on to legalise homosexual acts between adult men in private.

Lord Goddard may well have been right. Such clubs certainly went on to spring up all round the Vauxhall Cross roundabout.  It is instructive to read the whole of their Lordships’ debate. In 2014, they would have to  claim a great deal of parliamentary privilege for such homophobic language.

The situation predicted by the most vocal opponents of liberalisation went on to occur. The naysayers were right. Except…

Except it’s nowhere near as bad as they imagined. Yes, there are buggers’ clubs. Apparently. But we also have a Conservative Prime Minister making the case for, and driving enactment of,  equal marriage. Gay sex became legal and the world didn’t end. Instead, it got better, by getting much more like the kind of hell that the naysayers were predicting in 1965.

1967 – Old Sex Rules scrapped

It is the same with assisted dying.  If – when – the law changes, which it will whether by Lord Falconer’s Bill or otherwise, most of the dreadful things that the Bill’s opponents are predicting will probably happen eventually.  Doctors will kill people, deliberately.  Some people will come under pressure to ask for assistance with their suicide.  But it won’t be all bad. We will learn new moral rules to allow for assisted suicide, just as we have done with sex. For most of history, sex outside marriage has been taboo and often illegal.  Then, in the 1960s, we threw the old rules of behaviour on the bonfire. The Permissive Society arrived. Now, we have new rules; anything that consenting adults do is OK. Anything non-consensual or involving children isn’t.  It took us quite a while to sort out the new sex rules, but they’re pretty much the established norm now.  (and while we were going through the change, some pretty sick people did some pretty sick things… but that’s another story).

The “old death rule”

The death rules need changing too. The old rule is an absolute: “don’t kill people”. It’s pretty simple, but its consequence is that we end up keeping people alive when they would rather we didn’t.  But to mess with the absolute “don’t kill people” rule… is a risk…

… We have to take, and it may take us to a place that seems awful.  We need to discover  and learn the new death rules. The safeguards in Lord Falconer’s Bill  or its successor will only be a first draft.  Rules like this come from society; legislators only codify them, usually not very well. The process first of discovering and then of learning the new death rules will be at least as traumatic as learning the new sex rules was. There will be plenty of mistakes made. Probably, some people will die when the didn’t want to. (Quick reminder: this already happens). The new death rules will be much more complicated than the simple, absolute, old death rule, but the process of discovery can only take place once we scrap the old death rule.

Now I am going to get controversial. The main reason we have to change the death rules is to allow a cull of the old people.

No, that is wrong. The main reason old death rule needs changing is because it makes people suffer while they wait to die.

There are two main reasons to change the old death rule. One is compassionate, the other is economic. The arguments for both are compelling. The case can and should be made purely on compassionate grounds, and would stand even if the economic arguments went the other way. If the compassionate argument failed, which it doesn’t, it could not be trumped by the economic argument. But both compassionate and economic arguments go the same way. So, inevitably, something like Lord Falconer’s Bill will be passed, sooner rather than later .


“Cull the old people”

Prediction: A “cull of old people” will be the “bugger’s clubs” of assisted dying.  A terrible thing that turns out not to be half as bad as we thought. We are very lucky to live in a time when people live longer and longer; and most of those longer lives are longer, fulfilled and active lives. Because we no longer drop dead (much) from heart attacks in our sixties, or from infectious diseases, or childhood infections, or in childbirth, or by killing each other in industrial wars,  we are living to a ripe old age, and then…  the body stops working properly. The interventions needed to keep it working become more invasive, less dignified and much, much much more expensive. Eventually they fail; eventually, we all die.We now beginning to realise that there may be a point in these final stages of life where it is better to stop giving the interventions that prolong life and change to ones that curtail it.  Recognising that point is going to be much harder than learning the vital signs. It’s going to require evaluation not just of biological and medical criteria, but social, compassionate and ethical ones.  It means we, humans, are going to have to take on more responsibility.  We may need a whole new class of professional to make such judgements; we will certainly need a whole new form of professional language in the caring professions.  Lord Falconer’s Bill skips the most difficult question by requiring “sound mind”; but the brain is a very important part of the body and it too starts to fail. For many people, the brain starts to fail before the rest of the body; for the fortunate, it is the other way round.  If I suffer dementia as I age,  I want the treatment that most mitigates my distress even if I cannot communicate it to those treating me.  If that means putting me out of my misery, please do so.

People with disabilities

The most cogent arguments against assisted dying have come from people with disabilities.  There is, naturally, a fear that their disability will be weighed in the balance when the time come to judge the time to make the switch from prolonging to curtailing an individual’s life.  It is, I think, a specious argument. People with disabilities must be treated equally, and we as a society are getting much better at doing so. We’re not perfect. But the answer to their concerns must be that a compassionate society will extend that equality to the new death rules which we need but have not yet discovered.

Living funerals

In a bit of futurology from the Tomorrow’s World annual of about 1970, it was suggested that people would check in to boutique hotels, enjoy a last meal and then go to eternal sleep.

I’d like to think that it won’t be so lonely. I’d like to share my last meal with my friends and family. I’d like it to be  matter-of-fact: yes, I’ve had a good life, you’ll manage to sort out the mess I’ve left for you,  it’s been lovely knowing you, thank you for coming, adieu. No tears. No shock, it’s in the plan.



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