former archbishop of canterbury george carey, who changed his mind on assisted dying after witnessing terrible suffering. image: Larry Gossett (St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral – Memphis). CC BY 2.0.

I was interested to hear of the unusual case of Kevin Yuill, who wrote recently in this magazine that he is a humanist, secularist, and atheist opposed to assisted dying. Since a basic humanist principle—at least as I, and most self-identified humanists, understand it—is the belief that everybody should have agency over their own body and be able to make choices that are best for them, this is like somebody saying, ‘I am a true pacifist, but I would like to join the army.’ Is he really saying that he could stand by unmoved if a close relative of his were in the same position as Tony Nicklinson, suffering from locked-in syndrome and begging pitifully for deliverance from his seven-year-long ordeal through blinking his eye—his only way of (computer-aided) communication?

Would Yuill really not immediately begin campaigning for a change in the law, instead of spending years battling to maintain the cruel status quo? Answering ‘yes’ to this question would mean that he couldn’t possibly continue to claim to be a humanist. I could understand a god-squadder getting worked up about this issue but not a self-proclaimed rationalist. Yes, I could see such a person raising legitimate questions about some of the aspects of this moral issue, but that approach is not for Kevin Yuill, who appears to be in the grip of an obsession.

Could this be because he is aghast at the lingering painful deaths some people must endure? Well, no, that’s his opponents’ case. Does he see himself as a knight in shining armour, riding to the rescue of the condemned? But there’s nothing to rescue. Nobody is being dragged kicking and screaming to the scaffold. Could it be that he is a crypto-Christian, using the humanist label to strengthen his impact? I cannot claim to know the answer to this question, though a case could be made for it. But such speculation on motives might be seen as unfair, so let’s take Yuill at his word and see what he has to offer by way of argument.  

He sets out his stall in his 2013 book Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalization. I have been unable to locate a copy of this book but have seen two extensive, highly critical reviews of it: one by Iain Brassington in the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, the other by Jonathan Herring of Exeter College, Oxford. It seems that Yuill’s recent Freethinker article offers a précis of the book’s arguments, so let us turn to that.

Yuill makes a big deal about terminology, always substituting ‘ASE (assisted suicide and euthanasia)’ for ‘assisted dying’. Who cares? There are more than 5,000 suicides in England and Wales each year, which is proof of the agony that many people must endure. If some of these desperate people can be helped to die at their own request, subject to all necessary scrutiny, overseen by two doctors, then a humane service is provided. By all means, let Yuill call it assisted suicide; would he prefer that people starve themselves to death or cut their veins in the bath or find a rope and a tree?

Yuill’s commentary contains several unsubstantiated allegations but one that stands out particularly is his despicable statement that ‘utility is the real force behind [assisted dying] campaigns; some citizens—particularly those who are disabled or elderly—are inevitably valued less than others.’ Where on earth does he get this from? He provides no evidence, apart from his own suspicious mind. In another leap of fantasy, he conflates modern interpretations of euthanasia with fascistic utterances by some German supremacists more than a century ago. Throughout, he portrays desperate applicants for assisted dying or ASE as unwilling lambs to the slaughter, urged on by suicide-promoting organisations, aided by the state. If only he could grasp the fact that such people ask for help unprompted, voluntarily, motivated by an irresistible desire to be free of their unbearable condition, without paying any attention to outside parties who might have an interest in their demise. It is highly condescending and offensive to suggest that people in despair are incapable of knowing what’s good for them.

[Yuill] talks about fear-mongering campaigns by assisted dying proponents whilst at the same time whipping up fear himself by saying that many vulnerable people are under mortal threat from predatory mercy killers.

Yuill makes great play of the fact that thousands of people who have died from euthanasia have had their lives cut short. Well, of course they have—that was the whole point! Why prolong a life that is unbearable by some extra months with no respite? Yuill just can’t seem to understand that people really are desperate to go through with this.

Further on he once again states that those with fewer years left and those with disabilities are thought to lead less valuable lives and thus are directed towards assisted suicide and euthanasia. Who are the fiends who apply this pressure and who are the doctors that approve enforced suicide for such people? He has a lot to say about fear in all directions. He talks about fear-mongering campaigns by assisted dying proponents whilst at the same time whipping up fear himself by saying that many vulnerable people are under mortal threat from predatory mercy killers. His singling out of Dignity in Dying and its engagement with Hospice UK over the former’s ‘The Inescapable Truth’ campaign conveniently omits to tell the end of that story. The two organisations engaged in an open discussion. Here is what Dignity in Dying’s Chief Executive had to say, which rather undercuts Yuill’s tendentious telling of the story:

‘[W]e welcome Hospice UK’s statement which acknowledges that some people will have a bad death, “despite the very best care” and the “need to be honest and straightforward with people about what dying can be like”. We also welcome Hospice UK stating that they “do not disagree with the findings in the Dignity in Dying report The Inescapable Truth About Dying” and “urge as many people as possible to read the report and debate the findings”.’

Yuill also looks abroad to Canada and Holland, both countries very close to my heart (I’m a Dutch national and have lived in both countries), for more ammunition. He alleges that in Holland an autistic man in his twenties who had been bullied and had long felt unhappy was ‘euthanized’ by his doctor ‘on this basis, and at his request’. This is a shallow interpretation of events; Yuill neglects to give the fuller context. This was, in fact, a highly unusual and complex case which received a great deal of attention and was minutely examined in a 3,000-word report by a regional scrutinising commission that ultimately gave it the all clear. Multiple doctors and psychiatrists, one of them a specialist in autism, were involved, not just one. Space doesn’t allow me to give all the details, and there is always privacy involved in interactions between patients and doctors. The upshot is that outsiders rarely get to know all the facts. If they did they would, more often than not, end up saying, ‘Well, if only I had known that’ instead of jumping to conclusions.

Equal care is taken in Canada, where legislation was first introduced in 2016. A recent poll showed that only 42% of Canadians supported assisted dying proposals for those with intractable mental health conditions (which can, incidentally, be even more troublesome than physical distress), while 77% supported the legislation as it stands. In response, the proposals were shelved, to be re-examined in 2027. Even eight years after legalising assisted dying, Canada is still cautiously fine-tuning its approach and respecting the democratic will of the people—hardly the hellscape portrayed by Yuill.

Yuill concludes his submission with the sentence: ‘There is wisdom yet in the famous old Christian precept, Thou shalt not kill.’ In reply, let me quote the former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, who changed his mind in favour of assisted dying after seeing cases of true torment: ‘The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering. …  In strictly observing accepted teaching about the sanctity of life, the church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain—the very opposite of the Christian message.’ Kevin Yuill is free to choose to suffer an appalling death, should he have the misfortune to face such end-of-life circumstances. But his view that everyone else may not choose to avoid such an end is incompatible with the very heart of humanism.

More on the assisted dying debate

National Secular Society podcast on the 2021 Assisted Dying Bill: Emma Park interviews A.C. Grayling and Molly Meacher, Baroness Meacher

Bishops in the Lords: Why are they still there? by Emma Park

Assisted dying: will the final freedom be legalised in France? by Jean-Luc Romero-Michel

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