It is this – an individual’s right to choose their end of life options – which lies at the heart of the ongoing public debate on ‘assisted dying’
WE live in an uncertain world. Except for death and taxes, wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1789. And we are far more comfortable talking about the latter than the former.
We all will experience our own deaths once, but it is the deaths of those around us – particularly family and loved ones of course – that we will touch us repeatedly and throughout our lives.
Irrespective of whether those deaths are expected or unexpected, it is those left behind who will suffer loss and grief. The grieving process may itself be impacted by the quality of the loved one’s death.
A sudden death, while shocking for the bereaved, may be eased if accompanied by the knowledge that the individual would have experienced no or little distress or pain. Conversely, a long drawn out, distressing or painful death can be a relief, albeit sometimes guilt-ridden, for those observing.
That grief is nonetheless easier to bear in the knowledge that the individual’s wishes were respected, perhaps to die at home or in a hospice rather than in hospital.
At one end of the spectrum of wishes, an individual may ask that everything is done to keep them alive for as long as possible, such as resuscitation, antibiotics and tube feeding. Others may choose to hasten death by giving to their medical team and loved ones ‘do not resuscitate’ or force-feed directions; still others may opt for palliative care to ease suffering.
Seeking help to die for those who are terminally ill, is simply part of the continuum of end of life choices. It is this – an individual’s right to choose their end of life options – which lies at the heart of the ongoing public debate on ‘assisted dying’.
In essence, the argument boils down to this: should we all, as individuals, have the right to choose the manner and timing of our own death or should the government continue to prevent the exercise of that right?
The issuance last week of Jersey’s ‘Citizens’ Jury’ report on end-of-life choice came at the same time as the simultaneous publication of Island Global Research’s poll into community opinions in each of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.
The results of both exercises were confirmation of what was already known: a significant majority (75-80%) of the public are in favour of a terminally ill individual’s right to choose an assisted death.
This is why legislative frameworks to ensure the individual’s right can be exercised in a safe way, are being adopted in an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world, from many of the US states and Canada in the northern hemisphere, to most of the Australian states and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere.
A range of others, including Scotland, Ireland, Spain and France, are actively debating the issue. Politicians are frequently behind the curve. This was so in Guernsey when a proposal was defeated in 2018 and remains so today, having bizarrely been branded ‘a vanity project’, revealing how out of touch government is with the public who can see no vanity in an individual wanting a good death of their own choosing.
I am delighted that Guernsey’s debate three years ago helped trigger Jersey’s engagement with the topic – which will in turn assist the campaign in Guernsey.
I can’t say which island is going to get there first or when, but I do know that inevitably both will. Their choice is only one of timing and whether to be a leader or a follower.
Proponents need to brace themselves for the fact that opponents will do whatever they can to keep kicking the can down the road for as long as possible, which they will do in the Channel Islands with some confidence of a long history, tradition and experience that politics in both islands is finely tuned to postponing decisions rather than delivering action.
When it does happen, most people will just wonder what all the fuss was about and why it took so long.
Like granting equal rights to marry to all couples, there will remain a small, hard core of the community who – normally because of their personal faith and convictions – will not be satisfied that they are not personally obliged to marry someone of the same sex or to seek assistance for their own deaths if terminally ill, but rather will seek to impose their values and mores on the majority.
Some politicians may hold faith, personal values or conscience which perhaps they cannot or should not be expected to subjugate to the clear will of the majority. For this reason, ultimately as it is an issue of personal conscience and choice, I understand why some jurisdictions such as New Zealand – although like us, with a tradition as a representative democracy, rather than a direct democracy like Switzerland – decided to put the final decision in the hands of the people by means of a referendum before the legislation takes effect.
I can see this being a route which the States Assembly in Jersey might go down and it’s certainly one I would support in Guernsey.
In an ideal world, politicians might hope they could get through their terms without having to talk about either death or taxes, but Benjamin Franklin called it right in 1789: both are certain. So our politicians will need to gird themselves to debate individuals’ right to choose end of life options. It’s an issue that is not going away.
lGavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.