A story in Thursday's Daily Mirror about the first English patient suffering from dementia to have traveled to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich to kill himself by physician assisted suicide has prompted several "me too" stories in the British press. On Friday the Telegraph, Independent, BBC, Daily Mail and Times followed the Daily Mirror's lead and reported that an 83 year old man with early dementia had killed himself at Dignitas seven weeks ago.
The Sunday Times first reported this story in March, however the Daily Mirror splashed the story on their front page last week after it secured an exclusive interview with Michael Irwin, the head of the pro-euthanasia group Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS).
Irwin told the Mirror he had referred the man to a psychiatrist to provide him with a medical certificate stating he was of sound mind, and hence competent to kill himself. The 83 year old man was his first dementia patient he passed on to Dignitas, but he admits to having sent 24 others to their voluntary deaths in Switzerland.
From the point of view of journalism I find this story problematic -- morally this is abhorrent. The article's lede states:
A British man has become the first dementia sufferer to die at a controversial suicide clinic. The 83-year-old man ended his life at Dignitas in Switzerland because he could not face the agony of the progressive, incurable disease. He also wanted to spare those closest to him from any burden and strain his illness might put on them.
After reporting the facts of the death the Mirror presents its angle.
And last night one campaigner told how the pensioner was “so grateful at the end.” Retired GP Michael Irwin, 81, had arranged for him to see a psychiatrist to produce a report saying he was mentally competent.
Irwin is then offered his moment in the spotlight and he presents his ethical arguments in favor of physician assisted suicide. Prominent supporters of euthanasia give their say (Melvyn Bragg, Terry Pratchett, Lord Falconer) -- though it is unclear whether these are comments in response to this incident or general statements about physician assisted suicide.
A contrary view is also offered:
But critics fear that if euthanasia was legalised there would be pressure to widen the category of people to be included. A spokesman for Care Not Killing said: “It’s hugely alarming and shows the real agenda of those seeking a change in the law. What they are looking for is assisted suicide or euthanasia almost on demand. We’ve been warning about an incremental approach, as once you change the law you get more and more cases like this, which is why we are so worried. We know that people who are vulnerable, disabled and terminally ill will be most under pressure.”
The article ends with an editorial statement from the Mirror in favor of physician assisted suicide, but with safeguards.
Assisted suicide is a deeply emotional and ethical issue which understandably creates strong feelings. Our report on an 83-year-old with dementia who ended his life at the Swiss Dignitas clinic adds another dimension to the debate. This paper believes both sides of the argument should be heard and respected.
Some campaigners will fear this case could lead to a relaxation of the rules and place pressure on the vulnerable who feel they are a burden on their family and loved ones. Others will argue the laws should be changed so those who are dying and feel they have no quality of life do not have to travel to Switzerland to end their life in dignity. Nor will they think it is right that those who assist in such deaths, out of compassion, should be liable to prosecution.
Lord Falconer, a former lord chancellor, is seeking to change the law to make assisted dying legal for the terminally ill. Any such legislation must be sensitively crafted and we should consider carefully before extending such rights to people with long-term conditions such as dementia. There is much debate to be had but it would be wrong to ignore the wishes of those who, in very rare cases, want to kill themselves.
The story would have been better served by presenting contrary voices -- there are a number of prominent Britons from the medical establishment, the churches and academia to whom the Mirror could have turned to balance the story. It did run a second day story noting that the General Medical Council -- England's licensing board for doctors -- may discipline the psychiatrist.
But the General Medical Council’s guidelines state psychiatrists could be struck off the register if they “knew their actions would encourage or assist suicide”. It also says they risk censure if they are “writing reports knowing they will be used to enable a person to obtain encouragement or assistance in suicide”.
Why, you might ask would they strike off the psychiatrist and not the "Retired GP Michael Irwin, 81"? Most likely because he has already been struck off for misconduct. In 2005 the BBC reported:
Right-to-die campaigner Dr Michael Irwin, from Surrey, admitted obtaining sleeping pills to help his friend die, but denied the misconduct charge. The 74-year-old has already received a police caution for his actions. A GMC panel said his actions were irresponsible, and found him guilty of serious professional misconduct. Dr Irwin, a former UN medical director and head of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, had said he is too old to practise medicine, but was fighting the case to highlight his call for a change in the law.
Irwin is campaigning to change the euthanasia laws in Britain and the Mirror has given him a soapbox on which to stand to proclaim his agenda. This is a manufactured story. It was covered by the press when the news broke seven weeks ago. What is new is Irwin's justification and self-promotion. The Mirror did not press Irwin to defend his views or give adequate space to contrary opinions. What we have here is a rewritten press release to which the Mirror has appended its editorial in support of euthanasia. This is not journalism, it's advertising.
That's the journalistic issue I have with the story -- [and you can stop reading at this point] but I also have moral qualms about what is being reported. In a 2011 piece I wrote for GetReligion on the Dutch euthanasia laws. I argued:
By allowing the killing of people who are not considered fit to live, we are adopting a view of humanity that reduces existence to the balancing of pain and pleasure. Life is worth living when pleasure is greater than pain. This view of life makes irrelevant many of the traits and characteristics of our humanity. Virtue, duty, courage, honor and even love play no part in this animalistic calculus. It is moral nihilism.
Britain has taken one more step towards the "Brave New World" envisioned by Aldous Huxley. Yet the Michael Irwins and the Mirror editorial board see Huxley's dystopia as paradise.
Michel Houellebecq in his 2001 novel “The Elementary Particles" summarizes the world in which we now live:
When Bruno arrived at about nine o’clock, he had already had a couple of drinks and was eager to talk philosophy. “I’ve always been struck by how accurate Huxley was in Brave New World,” he began before he’d even sat down. “It’s phenomenal when you think he wrote it in 1932. Everything that’s happened since simply brings Western society closer to the social model he described. Control of reproduction is more precise and eventually will be completely disassociated from sex altogether, and procreation will take place in tightly guarded laboratories where perfect genetic conditions are ensured. Once that happens, any sense of family, of father-son bonds, will disappear. Pharmaceutical companies will break down the distinction between youth and age. In Huxley’s world, a sixty-year-old man is as healthy as a man of twenty, looks as young and has the same desires. When we get to the point that life can’t be prolonged any further, we’ll be killed off by voluntary euthanasia; quick, discreet, emotionless. The society Huxley describes in Brave New World is happy; tragedy and extremes of human emotion have disappeared. Sexual liberation is total—nothing stands in the way of instant gratification. Oh, there are little moments of depression, of sadness or doubt, but they’re easily dealt with using advances in antidepressants and tranquilizers. ‘One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.’ This is exactly the sort of world we’re trying to create, the world we want to live in
“Oh, I know, I know,” Bruno went on, waving his hand as if to dismiss an objection Michel had not voiced. “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried—and so far failed—to create.”
“The Elementary Particles" pp 136-7 (Alfred A. Knopf edition, 2001)
A personal word might be in order at this point. I have been fortunate to have been able to pursue two vocations -- journalism and ministry. I spent five years working as a hospice chaplain specializing in the care of dementia patients -- and much of my ministry has been among the poor, disabled and elderly. Hence I approach this subject with two minds -- I want to see justice done to the story and justice and compassion shown to those with dementia. This story failed on both counts.