Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Would The 'Right To Die' Mean Under Capitalism?

Terry Pratchett takes the hand of Peter Smedley, who would later take his own life
Author Terry Pratchett's 'right to die' documentary has reignited the arguments over voluntary euthanasia. As a communist, I am totally opposed to any state repression of those who wish to end their lives. However, it's not quite as simple as that. We also need to examine the extent to which it really would be a 'free choice', in a capitalist society which is rapidly cutting back on public spending, and privatising health care.

When Pratchett's documentary was screened last week, the BBC received hundreds of complaints, with many complaining that the programme had been biased in favour of allowing assisted suicide. The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Al, labelled it "propaganda on one side". And indeed it was. Political neutrality is an illusion anyway, but Pratchett - who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2007 - is a vocal supporter of the 'right to die', and he was using the programme to put forward his view. This must be welcomed, because television should be used as a platform for serious discussion (as opposed to orchestrated and fake political knockabout between the big business parties) far more often.

On Choosing To Die, Pratchett and his crew watched as a seventy-one year old British businessman with motor neuron disease took a lethal dose of barbiturates at a Swiss clinic. In Switzerland, assisting a suicide is legal, so long as the doctor's motivations are not considered to be "selfish". For Pratchett, the only problem with this arrangement is that terminally people from Britain and the rest of the world had to "drag themselves to Switzerland, at considerable cost, in order to get the services that they were hoping for."

Religious arguments against suicide of any kind should immediately be discounted, as they are based on the supposed moral standards of an invisible and unmeasurable god. Communists should seek to argue on an entirely rational basis. But to do that, we need to look at the material forces in play, and the way those material forces are developing. At the moment, as state health care deteriorates and working class people are forced to tighten their budgets, we are faced with the problem of terminally ill people being a financial drain on more working class families.

As we all know, when we don't have as much money as we would like, we can't afford everything that we want, and we have to make choices, often very serious ones. Families often devote many thousands of hours to caring for their sick loved ones, and spend many thousands of pounds. If care for an elderly relative was costing money that then couldn't be spent on the younger generations, an elderly person might feel pressure to take their own life, to stop them being a 'burden' on their families. In no sense could we say this would be a 'free' or 'autonomous' choice. Like any choice, it would be conditioned by often contradictory social forces. We must never forget the Nazi concentration camps, which killed those deemed not healthy enough to profit the German ruling class of the 1940s. This was produced by the crisis of imperialism during the last great depression.

Assisted suicide should indeed be legal and readily available, but so too must every possible palliative treatment for terminal illness. No family should have to make a choice between caring for their elder or their younger relatives, because everyone should be guaranteed a good standard of living. In short, campaigning for a 'right to die' is problematic, when capitalism in its advanced decay provides so few with a genuine 'right to live'.
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