Ever since The Incredible Dement described an on screen Dignitas death as ‘a result’, much as parent might comment on the inspected contents of a toddler’s potty, Dr No has been somewhat less impressed with the ID’s own ‘results’. The ID’s latest ‘result’, a cooked report, produced on his behalf and at his expense, by an assembly of pro-snuffers, pipes the payer the tune he wanted. The ID has now moved on to his next project, which is grow daily in appearance more like the Archbishop of Canterbury. On latest sightings, it appears that this project too may soon produce ‘a result’, and we shall no longer be able to distinguish one from the other. Reporters and organisers of conferences on assisted snuffing might care to take note, lest they find the talking beard before them delivers ‘a result’ rather different to that which they were expecting.
Results aside, Dr No sees the Commission on Assisted Dying’s report as more non-result than result. Just as an assembly of hanging judges might find in favour of capital punishment, we simply cannot know whether the collected evidence gave rise to the conclusions, or the conclusions gave rise to the collected evidence. This is a flaw of such capital proportions that it quite takes the res out of any result, such that we are left with a deflated ult – and the suggested possibility of an ulterior motive.
The trouble with these ulterior motives is that they no know bounds. However carefully the Commission may lay down safeguards and checks, it is human nature that creep will occur. This is the experience in the Netherlands today; as it was too in the Nazi Aktion T4 programme. Once a Rubicon is crossed, it is downhill all the way; downhill down the slippery slope; that is the lesson of history.
Lately, Dr No has become more persuaded than before that the law is simply to crude a hammer to crack the delicate but oh so tough nut of bedside end of life decisions. The hammer falls, and the nut either shies away and is lost, or is shattered and destroyed. He remains decided that a person – not a patient – of sound mind and settled intent has a clear right to decide their fate, and that includes ending their own life. But when the law attempts – as we have seen the DPP attempt to do – to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable assistance, a quagmire of legalities emerges.
How proximate dare the assistance be, before it becomes culpable assistance? To place the fatal draught in reach, or in the hand, or on the invalid’s tongue: at what point down that road do we cross the line between acceptable – if it is ever acceptable – assistance, and the intentional killing of another? And what too of the legal doctrine of common purpose, or joint enterprise, where association of presence and intent is sufficient to give rise to joint liability? If – notwithstanding that this doctrine has been challenged – it can give rise to joint liability for gang murder, does not a similar application give rise to a joint liability in ‘assisted dying’ – and so assistance in, at best, suicide, or, at worst, murder?
These are muddy waters indeed, and the Commission on Assisted Dying’s report does little to clear those waters. For the time being, we should resist the application of legal hammers to delicate nuts. For there is an old saw that when the tool in your hand is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Dr No worries that when doctors start to carry sachets loaded with sodium pentobarbital, rather too many patients will start to look like patients who want to die; only they just don’t know how to ask.