The sanctity of human life is not an absolute principle.

An excerpt from the speech made by Baroness Mary Warnock in Belfast this evening. This is the first part of the argument in favour of assisted dying. The excerpt deals with- a) is it possible to have more liberal laws in favour of assisted dying, and b) the sanctity of human life is not an absolute principle. The second part of the argument will be dealt with in another thread, later threads will continue with the argument against.

I cannot possibly cover all of this huge subject this evening. I would like to start off by simply dividing the arguments that people put up against liberalising the law. Is it possible to have a law that would entitle people to indicate their wish to die and be helped to die by assisted suicide, or by euthanasia, thereby being given a lethal injection?

It is possible as we know in the Netherlands there is a liberal law and in Belgium and in the state of Oregon and now in the neighbouring state of Washington. These laws do exsist.

The Netherlands has had the law for the longest time and there is more evidence about how it works, but one must not take that analogy too seriosly because for one thing they keep their records in a very different way from the way we keep records. As the relationship between a doctor and a patient is very different in the Netherlands in that the people who administer death to those who want it and ask for it are usually doctors who have known this person for many years. The Netherlands is much more like we used to be and that is a family doctor who knows the people very very well and we’ve none of that really in the United Kingdom. So it is possible to have a law that works.

Now the objections to changing the law. The argument can be divided into two. First of all the absolute argument. The a priori argument, matters of absolute principle. This principle is often referred to as the sanctity of human life. And there is a very large number of people who object to any thought of assisted dying because they argue that human life is sacred. And some of those people derive this course from their religion. They argue that life is a gift from God, and therefore it should not be taken away except by God, that God has an ordained time for when people may die, and they may not die before that. And that principle is very often cited.

But one has to remember that it is a very difficult principle to defend because very often we don’t pay attention to the sanctity of human life. We send soldiers to Afghanistan knowing that they are at risk of dying – in which case the people who are responsible for sending them regard other principles as trumping the sanctity of human life. We are prepared to accept that people kill each other in self defence, as well as in war, and here again the principle of the sanctity of human life doesn’t really operate as an absolute principle. However it is cited by such people who regard it as an over riding principle to refuse a request from somebody that they should be helped to die.