|A Slippery Slope?|
In Parliament this week (July 18th, 2014) there will be a debate regarding assisted suicide. Lord Falconer, a barrister and ex-Lord Chancellor in the government of Tony Blair, has introduced a Bill in the Lords which is called The Assisted Dying Bill. The Bill would have the effect of legalising help given to someone who wanted to commit suicide. It would not permit, however, such assistance in all circumstances. The law proposed requires that the person assisted to die should:
Those who propose this change to the law say that it is an act of compassion. They assert that every one of us has a right to choose when to die. To have the obligation to continue to live when life has become unsupportable because of intense pain, the loss of independence or even their imminence is not fair or justifiable. Nor is it reasonable to require that the person die here alone and without the help that could prevent the suicide itself from being another - and final - act of suffering. After all, committing suicide without pain is not easy without the cocktail of medicines which only a doctor can provide. I am not convinced that I would have the courage to make use of this law, but I would be very much comforted to know that it existed. And according to the opinion polls I am part of a majority of 80% of the population, including two ex-archbishops Desmond Tutu and George Carey (the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury), but not the present incumbent (as to which more later).
what we see in opposition to the Bill is the deployment of an
argument which I have never understood "we're on a slippery slope"
or one thing inevitably leads to another. They predict
a free for all, with death upon demand. Now clearly one thing
does lead to another in the physical world that is how
it works - the law of cause and effect. However, this idea can
be badly misused. For instance, to explain why we have professional
criminals, we might say that they will have arrived in this situation
because, having committed a minor crime, one thing led to another
and so they end up living a life of crime. The same idea is often
applied to drug-addicts. And it is true that someone who is a
hardened criminal will generally have started out with something
relatively minor and a drug addict on crack cocaine may well
have started out with a softer drug such as cannabis.
But those opposing it say that we will
be inevitably set on a slippery slope leading down to death on
demand. In fact, this proposed law contains the seeds of its
own destruction what we call a sunset clause. The law
will automatically cease to have effect after 10 years in the
absence of a confirmatory vote by Parliament. Thus, there are
at least 3 possibilities that it will continue only until
2024, that it will continue indefinitely or that it will be replaced
by a more liberal law after the 10 years or even before then,
as its opponents fear. As a supporter of the proposed change
in the law, I certainly cannot be sure of the result. Public
opinion has a tendency to change in unpredictable ways. So then
to use the slippery slope argument means that those opposing
it are somehow able to see into the future, one where there is
a wave of opinion which will inevitably lead in one direction
the wrong direction. They evidently think that we
are all going to Hell in a hand-cart rather than perhaps abandoning
dogma in favour of finding ways to show true compassion to those
in desperate circumstances.
To see the whole question in greater perspective, however, it may be useful to take another example of a supposed slippery slope, this time leading from death to life. In Great Britain, burning at the stake, the means of death prefered by the Church, was finally abolished at the end of the 18th century. There were, however, still 220 capital crimes on the books. These included treason, homicide, stealing a goat, shoplifting and felling trees in a public park all this with the approval of the established Church.
The cruelty of the so-called Bloody Code, which existed explicitly to protect the property of the rich at any cost, was nonetheless moderated from time to time, albeit not by the Church. Many juries showed their compassion and refused to convict at all. Others juries, in convicting someone of theft, would arbitrarily fix the value of the stolen goods at less than the level which defined the crime as carrying the death penalty 5 shillings! Obviously we could say that all this was but the start of a slippery slope leading to anarchy. No doubt many did. And now we can see the proof because, only 170 years later, in 1969, the death penalty for murder was finally abolished and in 1998 it was abolished for treason.
So then just 2 centuries later we have seen the total abolition of capital punishment. A very slippery slope. Well perhaps not very slippery and not very sloping. We cannot even say that it was an inevitable change. There is still a wish amongst many people to "bring back hanging", so that those of us who are against it need to continue to make the argument.