Marlowe's Shade

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sponsor of UK Euthanasia Bill Speaks Out

The Guardian ran this puff piece on Lord Joel Joffe, the peer who is pushing the current euthanasia bill through Parliment. Although the blurb claims he tells the reporter "how the right to die became a lifetime's work" don't expect a lot of insight on his motives. However in his own words Lord Joffe does unintentionally expose some of the bill's biggest flaws.

Joel Joffe had just arrived on British shores, after being "exited" from South Africa, when he saw a leaflet offering life membership for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society for just 20 guineas.

The human rights lawyer, who once counted Nelson Mandela among his clients, decided to sign up. Forty years on, and now a cross-bench peer, his name has become inextricably linked with the controversial cause of legalising people's right to be helped to die.

Though he has a track record in the charity sector, Lord Joffe's energies for the past three years have been concentrated on this single issue.
"I have really not focused on anything else", he says with a smile. "It has taken up more of my time than I would care to mention."

That's about all we hear about Lord Joffe's motivation. But what ever his reasons, he is a persistant peer. This is the fourth time the bill has been proposed. One concession this time is to give up language allowing what is being defined as "voluntary euthanasia" where the doctor actively kills the patient with the patient's consent, and only allowing "physicial assisted suicide" where the patient takes his own life with the help of the doctor.

Despite the usually pleas for those in unbearable pain, the bill doesn't excluded those who are simply depressed or tired of their illness:

But the peer will not concede ground on another select committee recommendation, namely that the definition of unbearable suffering be replaced with "unrelievable" or "intractable" suffering or distress.

Lord Joffe is aware that his views are not widely shared among faith groups. Born Jewish, he describes himself as an agnostic who believes in many "religious values".

"The person who must be the judge of suffering is the patient," says Lord Joffe, pointing out that feeling that something is 'unbearable' varies with the individual.

Lord Joffe seems particularly unfamiliar with the pitfalls of the Dutch experiment, or if he is, he does not address them. And when he addresses the issue of patients who wish to die because they feel like a burden, it's hard to say if his response is a kind of moral myopia, or just insensitivity:

He counters claims made by the bill's detractors that many people with terminal illness may feel compelled to end their days prematurely to avoid being a further "burden" to their carers if the law were finally introduced.

"The key to it is that the sort of people who would ask for assisted dying are independent and used to making their own decisions in their own lives. You find carers mostly want the patients to carry on living, and the patient says: 'No, I don't want to be.' To pretend one is not a burden when one is dying of motor neurone disease is not facing up to reality.

"People are burdens and they do not want to be. The carers are the people who want to keep them alive. But it is not for the carers to decide. It is for the individuals.

"The underlying principle on which the whole bill is based upon is personal autonomy and people making decisions for themselves.

He cites the Oregon legislation at one point, but again ignores the flaw of a PAS-based law. The patient must commit the act while still able to do so himself, which creates enormous pressure on the patient to get on with it, as described in this heartrending case.

Lord Joffe has a similar blind spot regarding the concerns of the disabled:

He is bewildered by the "contradiction" within sections of the disability lobby, some of whom fear that the law will be used to discriminate against disabled people's quality of life and persuade them to end their lives instead. He returns to the fact that the law is only intended for terminally ill people, not those living with disability.

"Disabled people who have lived with disability all their lives and fight for equal rights are in a better position to withstand pressure. They have been discriminated against throughout their life. They have not capitulated to the pressure; why should they suddenly cap in the last six months of their lives?"

Lord Joffe needs to familiarize himself with the cases of Leslie Burke and Tracy Latimer. Not to mention the Groningen Protocols.

Lord Joffe does address palliative care and seems to support it as an alternative to euthanasia. What he doesn't address is that in jurisdictions where physical assisted suicide or euthanasia are allowed, palliative care is typically substandard such as in the Netherlands.

Lord Joffe is in many ways a more appealing advocate than many of his right-to-die "peers". Nowhere near as creepy as a Nitschke or Kevorkian, or as loony as a Felos. He doesn't have the puppetmaster vibe of a Soros, or the sneering distain of Dr Cranford. The Guardian piece doesn't really give us enough data points to say with any confidence what makes him tick, but he does seem to be defined by some ethical absences. All I can really say is that he seems to be a well intentioned moral cipher who leaves many of the key questions about his bill unanswered, apparently because he feels they just aren't worth addressing.
papijoe 6:49 AM