Sunday, 14 December 2008

"Euthanize David Mitchell!"

Though Cowards Flinch used this same provocative title in a response to an article written by David Mitchell in the Guardian's Comment is free section. This article was concerning euthanasia and was inspired by the recent discussion in the subject brought up by the death of Craig Ewert assisted by the Swiss charity Dignitas.

Though Cowards Flinch had an extremely negative view of the article which I largely share. Whilst I enjoy David Mitchell's comedic work the arguments he offers are weak and the jokes he makes fall flat, for example:

Like L. casei imunitas, the friendly bacterium, and Excellium, the fuel, it comes from a school of branding that believes that cod-Latinising a nice word makes people believe that your product or service possesses that positive attribute. It's attempting to reverse engineer etymology so that customers will think: 'Of course! We must derive our modern word "immunity" from the ancient Roman anti-bloating yoghurt.' Anyone stupid enough to believe that deserves a big pill.

Well no actually, the reason L. casei immunitas has a latin name is because that's how species are named, and I don't think anyone is supposed to believe the etymology works that way round. When a product is named "Excellium" is named in order to suggest excellence, not to make people think that excellence is named after it. It would be stupid to think so and it is stupid of David Mitchell to suggest it because it is blatantly not the case.

And for the information of David Mitchell Dignitas is a german speaking charity which caters to people of other nationalities and tongues. Having the name Dignitas implies what they offer, dignity in death rather than suffering. A point which he misses especially badly:

But if the clinic wants to say that they'll provide death with dignity, why don't they just name it 'Dignity'?

I don't know, maybe it's because they don't speak english as their native language.

I don't for a moment doubt the agony and sincere desire for death of any of the recently reported cases of assisted suicide. Their circumstances are tragic and I don't begrudge any of those people their hard-won peace. But what they've done is not normal and I wish people would stop going on about it as if it should be.

I agree with Though Cowards Flinch on their criticism of this point, lots of things that humans do is not normal by the standard of other animals. Modern medical technology such as respirators and kidney dialysis machines are not normal. An animal in the wild would die if it became ill enough to require dialysis so why do humans do it. We do it because we value life. It may seem contradictory to say that in a post supporting euthanasia but I believe that it's not, I believe that because there are other things that are valuable. Like freedom of determination and also quality of life. Human beings are set apart to quite a large degree by our highly evolved intellects; we are able to appreciate our lives on a higher level than simply the struggle for existence. If that existence coming to an end in such a way that that end will be more relief than tragedy why should the person not be able to take control of their own destiny.

Furthermore to say it is not normal is absolutely no reason at all to say it should be illegal, having the right to end your own suffering does not take away the seriousness of the act. No-one is saying it should be normal, what they are saying is that cognisant human beings should have the right to determine their own destiny without loved ones being prosecuted for helping them in what is a perfectly legal act in itself.

The main argument cited against legalising assisted suicide is that it may cause people to be put under pressure to end their lives prematurely - pressure, it is implied, that will be exerted by younger relatives who tire of an old person's ill health, moaning, money-hoarding, racism or smell. But I think it's worse than that - I think we'd end up putting pressure on ourselves.

Anyone who plans slightly obsessively - who thinks about packing days before the end of a holiday, puts their coat on during the last scene of a play or leaves football matches early to avoid traffic - is at risk of seeing death, in a society where we control its timing, as merely another job to get done. It's the last thing on the 'to do' list and their organised natures may make them feel duty-bound to 'get it done'.

Earlier on in the article he say's that he "[doesn't] begrudge any of those people their hard-won peace" and yet he seems perfectly happen to demean their choice. By his ridiculous assertion that making assisted suicide legal would put pressure on people to arrange their own deaths simply in order to be convenient he essentially implies that the decision is an easy one. The 100 or so Britons that have so far chosen to end their lives with the help of Dignitas did not do so because it was convenient, it I'm sure that it wasn't an easy decision for any of them.

So quite how it would suddenly be an easy option if it was legal in this country I don't know. He makes mention of the survival instinct in humans, and yet misses the point that it is indeed deep rooted, and simply having the opportunity to choose death does not make death an attractive option. To say that we should deny people the right to choose and force people to endure suffering because of some frivolous idea that it would make death attractive and a convenient way to order your life is ridiculous.

Legalising the right to die would weaken, in some people, the stubborn will to survive which is the cornerstone of our nature. Many would be seduced into finishing life in good order, clearing their desks. Millions of pensioners already dutifully sell their houses, move into care homes and take out insurance policies to pay for funeral expenses: they don't want to be a bother or a financial drain. It's not going to take much to make some of them give everything up - give up - just to be selfless and tidy. Only the selfish and messy will make old bones.

One thing that David Mitchell seems not to understand is that it's already legal and easy to commit suicide, human beings are frail so it doesn't take much to kill yourself. Amazingly enough though despite this frailty suicide is happily still relatively rare. If David Mitchell had stopped to consider that he might have realised that that's because people want to live too much to die. When people choose to end their own lives there is a very strong reason (Be that through physical or mental suffering or through mental illness.) to do so.

Suicide is not something to be taken lightly, and recognising a human beings right to self-determination and the ability to end their own suffering would not make it any less so.

I was very disappointed with this article, I felt that it was puerile and had very little thought put into it. David Mitchell is intelligent enough to do better than this.

My thanks to Though Cowards Flinch for putting me on to this and also for their continued high standard of blogging.


  1. While I do not like the style of his writing, I agree whole heartedly with its sentitment.

  2. How would you phrase the argument? I remember you saying before that you were against euthanasia but I can't remember if you explained why.

    Maybe you could write a post detailing your argument, it would create a nice balance for the blog.

  3. It is an exceptionally difficult and emotive subject, I will give it some thought and see where it gets me.