Christopher Smith worries that we may be on the way to a ‘Fixed Period’

There are, of course, many ways in which a perfectly pleasant evening can be soured at the end: a difficult journey home, food poisoning, discovering that one’s washing machine has flooded the kitchen, and so on. I felt rather like that coming back from a very pleasant Friday evening out with a colleague recently, switching on the news, and discovering that Lord Carey had changed his mind about euthanasia. Great. How do we pick up the pieces from this one? No doubt the Church of England will lose a fresh tranche of good people as women are ordained to the episcopate, and who will be left to hold the line against the compulsory destruction of your grandparents?

Carey had written an article for the Daily Mail on the subject, and it had shot straight to the top of the news agenda. The trigger was the publication of the Assisted Dying Bill, introduced to Parliament in the House of Lords by Lord Falconer of Thoroton. In its unamended form, it makes provision for a person who has capacity and who is terminally ill and ‘is reasonably expected to die within six months’ to be prescribed `medicines’ with which to commit suicide. Of course, the word `suicide’ is not used in the Bill, any more than `kill’ or `murder’ are.

And here we enter that Orwellian state so prevalent in the modern world: the Humpy-Dumpty morphing of meaning. The word `medicine’ has the same root as medic, a physician, a healer, so medicine is something that makes you better, not something that will kill you. But not in the world of Lord Falconer, who introduces a Bill with moral implications just as great as the Abortion Act 1967.

Lord Carey seems rather confused in his response. He wants to be `compassionate; and claims that the terms of the Suicide Act 1961 are uncompassionate because they can lead to the conviction of relatives and others who send the dying to their death, even when asked to do so by the patient. Readers may know that it was the 1961 Act which stopped suicide from being an offence at common law (in fact, a Species of murder), but did not take away culpability from any person acting as an accessory. So it continued to be an offense to help someone commit suicide, and logic tells us why: the dead cannot confirm or deny that they were killed in accordance with their own wishes, and it is no defense at English law that a victim consented to his own death, or indeed that he was killed under duress from a third party.

So the former archbishop has had a change of mind. Formerly, he says, `I would have used the time-honoured argument that we should be devoting ourselves to care, not killing. I would have paraded all the usual concerns about the risks of `slippery slopes” and “state-sponsored euthanasia’. But those arguments that persuaded me in the past seem to lack power and authority now when confronted with the experiences of those suffering a painful death: Seemingly oblivious to the possibility that `care, not killing’ might be a good thing, he recalls a dying parishioner from Durham saying to him, `It’s quality of life that counts, not number of days’. Good heavens! Having criticized the slippery slope argument, he now puts us right on one. Perhaps if I have a particularly good August, there will seem no point in carrying on into September. Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead!

It is naïve in the extreme to suggest that this Bill, if enacted, will not soon lead to calls to do away with the requirement of a `six months or less’ prognosis, since only then will assisting those who are incapacitated but not dying be able to be legalized. And then there will be the question of what degree of capacity is

required, and whether the depressed, or children (as in Belgium), should be able to take the decision to be helped to kill themselves. We would be justified in fearing that a `right to die’ would lead us in the direction of the Netherlands, where some 4000 people are now put to death by euthanasia each year, in a population of less than 18 million. One thing our Catholic understanding of the world has taught us is that life is God’s gift to us, and we should be proud to peak out about the sanctity of human life. It was never cheap, and the cost of redeeming it can be seen both on the cross, and in the empty tomb.

Since this column takes its title from a novel by Trollope, allow me to remind you of another of his lesser-known works. Written in 1880, The Fixed Period is horribly prescient as we stare down the barrel of euthanasia legislation. On an island near New Zealand, some young settlers build a brave new world in which they decide on a fixed period of life for all, and they set the age to be `deposited’ at sixty-eight. When they are all young, it seems like a good idea, but rather less so as some of them near their due date!

‘The Fixed Period…consists altogether of the abolition of the miseries, weakness, and fainéant imbecility of old age, by the prearranged ceasing to live of those who would otherwise become old. Two mistakes have been made by mankind in reference to their own race, first, in allowing the world to be burdened with the continued maintenance of those whose cares should have been made to cease, and the second, in requiring those who remain to live a useless and painful life’.

In the end, the British send a gunboat to stop it before it starts. Who can help us now? Not George…