Monday, October 20, 2008

Liberty and harm

I have been distressed to read accounts of a young football player, injured to such an extent that he felt compelled to take his own life. According to these accounts, he was transported by members of his family to a clinic in Switzerland and it was there that doctors put an end to his brief sojourn on this planet.

It is a sad story and there have been those who have called for the prosecution of those members of his family who provided him assistance; there have, in addition, been calls for the law to be changed to allow further instances of what is termed as "assisted suicide".

I have heard my good friend Mr John Stuart Mill called in aid of these arguments; for Mr Mill set out the principle that the government, the state should not interfere in an individual's management of his own body. Indeed in this instance, the state for many centuries regarded suicide as illegal as well as immoral; and a hapless individual who failed in a suicide attempt might face prosecution.

It is now therefore argued that the state should provide assistance to those who wish to terminate their existence on this earth; that at least it should not prevent doctors from providing assistance to ensure such an end is humane and merciful.

There is another instance that is also, it seems, under consideration this week: that is the aiding of a woman in the removal of her unborn baby from her womb. This I hear is now a common practice, aided and abetted by the agents of the state; it is a matter one would not have dared to discuss with our fair Queen, who had a certain delicacy of temperament. Now I hear that one of the arguments advanced in favour of this practice is that the illegal performance of this operation is far more injurious, dangerous even, to the woman than its performance by licensed professionals.

As in the case of assisted suicide, it is argued that state intervention is more humane, in that it protects the individual from the misery and injury they might suffer through the actions they have taken. However as it is also argued, following my friend Mr Mill, that the state should not intervene to prevent individuals doing harm to themselves, this is a poor argument.

I fear however that Mr Mill's principle cannot be taken as an absolute principle. It is better the state should not intervene and ludicrous that suicides should face the majesty of the law. By non-intervention however the state does not concede the principle that a self-destructive course of action is harmful and therefore it has every right to restrain others from assisting in a harmful course of action.


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