Shame on Queen’s to ban a lecture on assisted dying

It was very wrong of Queen’s to pull Australian Dr Philip Nitschke’s lecture on assisted dying. A university above all has a duty to promote free speech and is well able to provide a context for difficult subjects. What is there to fear from discussing it? Nitschke has had bad luck before, although his last ban was not in a university environment. One of the best debates I’ve ever heard was in the House of Lords three years ago, on the Joffe Bill on Assisted Dying, not quite the same as euthansia. Should all the peers have been gagged too or just the Bill’s supporters? One of that unsuccessful Bill’s key backers, the moral philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock whose famous report pioneered paved the way for IVF, goes further..”If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service. “I’m absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there’s a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they’re a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.”
Now 84, Lady Warnock isn’t speaking in detachment from her subject.

Just as the Joffe Bill was prompted by the Diana Pretty case, the current controversy has been promoted by another “DP” case, Debbie Purdy, this time, who had primary progressive MS diagnosed in 1995, and who is now confined to a wheelchair. Ms Purdy, 45, has said that when her condition becomes unbearable she hopes to end her life at a clinic in Switzerland or Belgium where assisted suicide is legal, but wants to know whether her husband will be prosecuted if he helps her. The English High Court has reserved judgment.

Apart from the very severely terminally ill like the two DPs, the problem of an ever growing number of the elderly demented won’t go away. The same applies to younger people who can be given early palliative care but not enough to save them from a slow and sometimes agonising death. How often have you heard that a much loved relative would be better dead? Is it wrong to say so out loud in respectful conditions? Opponents of assisted dying fear a slippery slope virtually to murder and indeed we can all see the problem. The elderly confused but still sentient must not live in terror of being murdered or feeling pressurised to take the briskly matter-of-fact Warnock line. If you’re confused, you can’t decide so you’re outside the ambit of any conceivable Bill.
The ban is a steep slippery slope to more fear and continuing ignorance.

One old informal and unspoken route to a merciful death has largely been removed. GPs who would have administered a little too much morphine are now understandably in the grip of the Shipman effect. That’s all the more reason why we need to debate every stage of the process of the care of the very ill. Shame on Queen’s for indulging the old familiar Ulster terror of a real life and death issue that lurks under the guise of piety.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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