Sunday, 10 May 2009

Mind your own business, make your own choice

I was intrigued to see veteran assisted suicide campaigner Michael Irwin apparently attacking a fellow campaigner, Philip Nitschke, in the Torygruff (see
I have to declare an interest here. Pat Kneen, the Manxman whose death caused the attempted prosecution of Michael Irwin and Pat’s widow, was a good friend. That’s why I was secretary of Pat’s Manx Death with Dignity campaign, and that’s why I know Michael Irwin personally.
In fact, I gladly collaborated with Michael again last year on a campaign to ‘road test’ a model Irish Living Will. In return for Manx people commenting they got a template to take to a Manx advocate and try and get something which will at least offer minimal protection in the absence of a Manx equivalent of the UK’s Mental Capacity Act.
Ironically, one reason I was involved was the Kneens weren’t up on computers or the internet, although the subsequent campaign was greatly aided by being able to receive and pass information off-island quickly, so they needed help there. The other was my straightforward and non-negotiable libertarian belief that anything that consenting adults do behind closed doors which doesn’t harm others is none of the state’s damned business.
It’s also why I’m slightly suspicious of this report, because I know that Michael always felt staff at the Torygruff disliked him enough to try and trip him up or misrepresent his words and actions. That said, I think the article does fairly represent his stance on the issue.
The thing is, in a funny way both the mainstream ‘for’ and ‘against’ opinion is guided by an old school ‘doctor knows best’ attitude. Michael believes doctors alone ought to be able to act on the informed wishes of terminally ill patients who don’t want to continue living. Pro-lifers say they think doctors shouldn’t ‘play God’, though of course condemning someone to more suffering is playing a god who decides they should, and curiously it also doesn’t seem to apply if UK pro-lifers decide to slip funds to or protect US nutters who bomb abortion clinics or shoot doctors. I make that last claim because, in an exchange with the spokesman of a prominent UK anti-abortion group in the local paper a few years back, I challenged his organisation to openly condemn such murderers and their sponsors; he would not or could not do it.
But the point is, they both believe ‘doctors know best’, and even the ‘pro’ lobby (perhaps unwittingly) tends to favour only terminally ill people from an upper middle class professional background as being capable of taking an informed choice. I doubt Michael Irwin thinks, say, a manual worker dying from an industrial respiratory illness should be able to take his own life or be helped to do so by his workmates.
Michael plays the gentlemanly family doctor to put a case for law change protecting other such gentlemanly types. I like him for it, but Philip Nitschke seems, by comparison, a model of antipodean bluntness, and I like that too.
The truth is, any old Cobber with a computer these days can decide to get the pills over the internet and use them. True, as with dodgy Viagra or ‘vitamin pills’, you might not get what you ordered. But is any of this finally anybody else’s business but your own?
So, I am not about to take sides or condemn either for going about things the way their cultural background taught them works – for them.
On the one hand, I hope, like Michael Irwin, for a more compassionate law. On the other hand, as I don’t believe it was ever the state’s business anyway I absolutely defend those, like Philip Nitschke, who help people make their own choices about their own private lives.

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