I’ve been saying for a while that Andrew Brown’s public and painful slide into incoherence suggests that it’s time for the Guardian to let him go. His latest example, a post called “Assisted suicide is never an autonomous choice,” shows the peculiar combination of stupidity and obstinacy that is Brown’s forte.
His argument, as far as I can make it out, seems to be that the decision to end one’s life in the face of intolerable pain or illness should be an autonomous one, but it can’t be because it’s made in the context of friends, family, and a harsh, depersonalizing society. See what you make of this argument from Brown:
It’s already abundantly clear that Britain has hundreds of thousands of old people whose lives are worth very little to anyone else, and who are neglected at best, abused at worst. Let’s suppose that only one in a thousand of them thinks their lives are hardly worth living – and that’s a very low estimate. That still means hundreds of people who would take the chance of assisted suicide if it were offered without pain or condemnation; and if we treat their decisions as wholly autonomous there is no reason to argue with them.
But we know that in fact their actions and decisions would not be really autonomous. They are reactions to a world that others have made, and that we all have a part in.They are reactions to a world that others have made, and that we all have a part in. The fraudulence of this kind of autonomy talk is obvious when it’s applied to poverty. Rich and poor alike are free to choose to sleep under the bridges. We can all now see the damage that was done to society in the last 30 years by talking about choices that the powerless just don’t have as if they were real. When Tony Blair’s old flatmate Charlie Falconer extends this style of argument to judgments about life and death, the only sane response is to call it nonsense. [Falconer headed a British commission that recommended, when strict conditions were met, the option of assisted suicide for the terminally ill.]
What is Brown trying to say? I have no idea, except that he doesn’t favor assisted suicide because other people advise one about it, or influence one’s decisions. Yet I know from reading about the issue that those decisions, while often made in consultation with doctors, psychiatrists, and loved ones, seem completely autonomous. Very few people will urge their friends, patients, or loved ones to take their own lives.
At any rate, someone with personal experience in this area, Eric MacDonald, takes Brown apart by recounting the heartbreaking story of the assisted suicide of his wife, Elizabeth, who took her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland after years of horrible suffering from multiple sclerosis. In “Andrew Brown is an idiot. It’s time for him to go,” (this is very strong stuff from Eric!), MacDonald analyzes the meaning of “autonomy” in such a decision:
If assisted suicide is never an autonomous choice, is any choice ever truly autonomous in the sense desiderated? I think the answer to that is no, and because he cannot see this is the reason why it seems to me that Andrew Brown is now teetering inelegantly towards idiocy.
The subtitle of his article states: “There are many who consider their lives no longer worth living. Yet it’s fraudulent to ignore the part we all play in those feelings.” And this is just silly. We don’t have to ignore the part that we play in people’s feeling that the quality of their life is so low that they consider their lives no longer worth living, in order to hold that the decision to ask for assisted suicide can still be a perfectly autonomous decision. If a person cannot make this decision autonomously, then the meaning of ‘autonomy’ itself is in question.
And then he tells Elizabeth’s story. It’s graphic, heartbreaking, and leaves no doubt that her decision was absolutely autonomous.
For anyone with a long-term partner, the saddest thing in life is to lose that partner. When it’s through a long, debilitating, and terminal illness, it’s much worse. If someone is rational and wants to end that kind of suffering via assisted suicide, a merciful society should allow it, with the proper precautions and strictures, of course. To deny someone this right—and yes, it is a right—because their decisions “cannot be autonomous” is the height of stupidity and cruelty.
If you read only one thing on assisted suicide this year, read Eric’s post. Many of us will face this issue ourselves, and need to think about it.