The Spectator's Notes

Charles Moore’s Notes: cheap trickery in the Economist’s assisted dying campaign

Plus: Horace Vernet’s North African paintings; charity fat cats; how a Cambridge college refused to treat me as a lady

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

Because, it says, of its ‘liberal values and respect for human dignity’, the Economist has put out a film about Emily, a 24-year-old Belgian woman, who wants assisted dying. She is physically healthy, and comes, the film assures us, from a happy family. She has suffered from severe depression since childhood, however. By her own account, her self-made video (two years ago), in which she says ‘I don’t want to live a lie’ and ‘It keeps feeling empty whatever I do’, made her feel empowered. It inspired her to seek death at the hands of doctors. Belgium is one of two countries in the world which permits assisted dying for psychiatric reasons. The Economist film shows Emily in her orderly and pleasant flat in Bruges, revealing the scars and bandages on her arms where she has self-harmed, sitting under a clock which says ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. We see her being interviewed by the three doctors who will approve her decision to be killed. They explain how the first needle will put her to sleep, the second kill her. ‘It’s going to be emotional for us too,’ says one of them smugly. Emily decides to be killed, and sets the date. She sits by a canal with her best friends, planning her funeral. At one point, one of the group says, ‘If it feels right for you, that’s the main thing.’

Is it really the main thing? Lots of dreadful things can feel right to people at one time or another which may not be, especially if the balance of one’s mind is disturbed as, in Emily’s case, it declaredly is. One of the purposes of human society is to temper what might feel right to an unhappy individual with a strong sense that there is a possible future and the existence of others to consider. Just now in Belgium the police are hunting Islamist men to whom suicide also ‘feels right’, and who blow themselves up as a result. Few would argue that this, in their case, is ‘the main thing’, and that their youthful desire to die should be encouraged by law so long as they do not kill others in the process. Most would think that they were deluded and would hope to help them escape this state of mind. In this respect, the Economist’s film is a libertarian version of one of those jihadi videos. It glorifies martyrdom in the cause of personal autonomy just as they glorify istishadd for Allah. It is near-crazy.

But just when the Economist film becomes almost unbearable with Emily’s approaching death and you think you are watching a snuff movie, she changes her mind. We are told that of the first 100 Belgians who applied for assisted dying on psychiatric grounds, 48 were ‘accepted’ (it makes it sound like a place at university) and 11 of those 48 subsequently postponed or cancelled. At the last minute, Emily follows that minority. ‘I can’t do it,’ she says.At this point, the film, having advocated psychiatric assisted dying, claims that the whole experience of being able to choose to be killed has ‘given some of them [the people who originally wanted to die] a chance to live’, and is therefore a good thing. This is a cheap trick. If Emily had chosen death, that would have been good, in the Economist’s view, too. Choice is a central and blessed fact of the human condition, but choice fundamentalists like the Economist do as much harm to the cause they espouse as Muslim fundamentalists do to the reputation of Allah, ‘the compassionate, the merciful’.

In Geneva last year, I noticed a small painting in a shop window. It was by a well-known 19th-century painter called Horace Vernet. It depicted a dashingly dressed Frenchwoman in a North African landscape firing a musket balanced on a rock at approaching Bedouin warriors. Beside her lay a wounded black soldier in French uniform: she was now defending herself alone. I liked the picture for its expression of woman power and its fanciful ‘orientalism’, so I bought it. Now I am reading a fascinating book called The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey (Granta). He explains, though with a subtlety that my précis cannot reproduce, how scenes like that of Vernet’s gave rise to the mentality which governed the attacks in Paris the week before last. The French conquest of Algeria in the 1830s, whose battles Vernet painted, ushered in the often hypocritical ‘mission civilisatrice’ which tried to make Arabs French. Most North African Muslims never accepted it. Today, underdogs in the former colonial power, they refuse their imposed French identity, and exact vengeance.

Sir Stephen Bubb is the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the trade union of charity fat cats. He is marvellously consistent in advocating large salaries for the chief executives of voluntary organisations and attacking any Charity Commission move to investigate any form of possible misbehaviour by any charity. This week, Third Sector, the magazine of the trade, reported his latest view: ‘Sir Stephen Bubb says Charity Commission has “disproportionate focus” on Islamic extremism.’ What would persuade Bubb Pasha that the question might be important?

According to Ofsted, a woman governor of a private Muslim school was made to sit in a separate room from her male colleagues and take part in their meetings through the door. This is considered wicked, but it could be seen as an advance that the school had a woman governor at all. In 1985, my wife became a governor (Fellow) of Peterhouse, Cambridge. She was the first woman on the governing body in 700 years. She was allowed to sit in the room for meetings, but controversy arose about Ladies’ Night in the college hall. She represented to the Fellows my strong hope that I, as her spouse, would be treated as a lady and therefore be allowed to retire with the women when the men turned to port and snuff. I wanted to know what women talked about on these occasions. This wish was refused, so my wife was treated unequally. Social change advances, however. Caroline is now a Fellow of Eton, which has double the number of women Fellows of Peterhouse 30 years ago, i.e. two.

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  • Terence Hale

    “Economist’s assisted dying campaign”. Has the Economist gone Dutch? Assisted dying is in a human and respectable manner practiced, to legalise it bring it in direct conflict with the law. Issues such as inheritance, getting rid of obligations, religious and morels each play a part. Generalising by one example is wrong. The Dutch, the fun of the party have in my opinion from over twelve years living in Holland lost a connection to the values of society. It’s a human endeavour to prolong life and by killing off all ill people goes against such.

  • mikewaller

    Drawing a parallel between somebody who seeks help in ending their own life and terrorists who are in the business of ending a large number of other people’s lives is the logic of the mad-house. There is a very sensible debate to be had over whether, if assisted dying were to be legalised in this country, that newly established right should be extended to those whose wish to die is grounded solely in their mental state. On balance, I would be against such an inclusion as, given full physical capacity, ending one’s own life can be achieved without the need to involve others. However, to leap from that issue to the jihadist’s “right” to chose to kill others is highly suggestive to me of someone who comes to the debate with an axe to grind and hence no regard whatsoever for sound argument.

    • Mr B J Mann

      No, because it’s about responsibilities, not uman rites!

  • douglas redmayne

    This us a warped rationalisation for wanting to interfere with individual choices that the author, a known religiously orientated moralist, disapproves of. These so called pro lifers should let people make their own decisions and mind their own business.

    • Texas Sunday Morning

      You can make your own decision to end your own life. Other than the severely disabled, there are innumerable relatively painless ways for people to end their lives. What you are asking for is society ‘s complicity in and social acceptance of your choice. That’s a social question we all get a say in.

    • soysauce1

      One of the primary symptoms of depression is a strong feeling of despair leading to a desire for death, when recovering the patient is most grateful to return to normal life as are their friends and family.

    • Mr B J Mann

      But it isn’t their own business:

      What they are really demanding is the uman rite to undermine the basic law of thou shall not kill.

      And undermine it with respect to the weakest in society.

      Well, second weakest.

      And we’ve seen how well selling the pass on that one went, with its not strict controls and it’s rubber stamping doctors and it’s big business getting in o the act!

      • douglas redmayne

        Do you believe that the basic law of thousands shall not kill applies to bombing ISIS?

        • Mr B J Mann

          The last time I looked there was a special exception for defending yourself against mass murderers who were trying to murder you.

          But the problem is that some want that special exception widened to assist the murdering of even people’s nearest and dearest!

          By the way, do you believe that the basic law of thousands that thou shall not even kill a lawfully convicted killer.

          If you do I do hope you don’t use the argument there is no humane way to kill them?!!!

          • douglas redmayne

            Then it is not a basic law if there is an exception. In any case it will be up to people themselves and it has 80%: public support so it will happen one day, ie whenever the Tory turds are cleared out of parliament which may be 10 years away.

          • Mr B J Mann

            Rouglas Redmayne tried to deliver to us a warped rationalisation for wanting to interfere with individual duties that he, a known irreligiously orientated moralist, disapproves of. He believes these so called pro lifers should let people make their own decisions about who to kill, and when, and mind their own business about whether killing is wrong in this case.

            He refused to address the fact that what he is asking for is society’s complicity in, and social acceptance of, “his” choice, which is a social question we all should get a say in.

            He also refuses to acknowledge that one of the primary symptoms of depression is a strong feeling of despair leading to a desire for death, and that when recovering the patient is most grateful to return to normal life, as are their friends and family.

            And when faced with the argument that it isn’t the self-styled pro-choicers’ (ie selfish, self-centred, immature, me, me, me lobby) own business: they are really demanding right to undermine the basic law of thou shall not kill, and with respect to the (second) weakest in society, having already proved with the pro-“choice” regarding the total lack of restraint and legal and medical safeguards actually in place regarding ab0rtion:

            He tries to deflect the “argument” by shifting the goalposts onto whether that basic law applies to k!lling terr0rists who are massacr!ng (and t0rturing, and rap3ing, and 3nslaving) thousands.

            Then, when caught out with the facts that there was a special exception for defending against mass murderers.

            And that he wants that special exception widened to assist murdering one’s nearest and dearest.

            And was asked if he believe in that the basic law that thou shall not even kill a lawfully convicted killer.

            And if he did, did he use the argument there is no humane way to kill them.

            His reasoned rational reply was that the people who dared disagree with him were Tory turds who would presumably be assisted to die by “the people” before long!

            No doubt from the nearest lampost or up against the nearest wall, as there is no humane way to kill them.

            Unless they are the inconveniently old or unborn young!

  • JSC

    IMHO, you can’t extend the right to die to people suffering from a primarily mental issue known to cloud their judgment, because a precondition of such a condition is their inability to make sane judgments on the issue. Depression is known to spontaneously go into remission, the option to die should be withheld from any person suffering a condition which has any chance of ever going into remission.

  • Suleiman

    Most British people support assisted dying. They are fair enough to understand that people should have choice and that we all deserve to die in a dignified manner – and that each one of us should decide what is the dignified death which one wants under such adverse circumstances.

    • soysauce1

      Most British people are not well enough educated to understand the complex arguments for and against, if they did, they too would be against.

    • Mr B J Mann


      But it’s not assisted dying;

      It’s assisted killing.

      It’s murder.

      And what they are really campaigning about is legalising murder.

      Now poll THAT question!

  • Ed  

    When people are suffering an illness, doctors should treat them, not help them pull the plug. Oh, you’ve got cancer, then? Will that be strychnine or a .45? Clinical depression is a disease, and it should be treated like any other.

    To treat depression differently from other illnesses is morally wrong.

    I’m also deeply worried about how long it will take cash-strapped government health services to start pressuring the expensive people to help out the budget and be off with themselves.

    • Frances

      Sadly, I think you’re right. It is so much cheaper to off Granny than to walk beside her on her final journey. And, besides, the kids could use the money now, and health services has a more worthy occupant for her bed.

  • pobjoy

    Choice is a central and blessed fact of the human condition

    … says a Catholic, to raucous laughter.