Although columnists traditionally blame excessive vitriol for killing national discussion, this week’s debate at the Union proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that excessive politeness can be equally fatal. All the speakers conducted themselves with the utmost grace and decorum, making no arguments that could possibly be deemed personally offensive to the other side, in the process managing to utterly bypass the core issues of the debate. In the end, the most challenging, impactful statements, the ones that lingered in the mind and prompted a serious revaluation of deeply held views, were the ones left unsaid.
Certainly, the combative tone of the first speaker seemed to auger well for the debate. He began by providing a clear definition of the motion; it would allow doctors to fulfill the request of terminally ill or permanently incapacitated patients who have expressed a desire to die. But his summary of his side’s plan paled in comparison to his defense of the principles of free will and compassion. In response, opposition speaker Jocelyn Poon set about meticulously unpacking each of the terms of his seemingly rigid definition. She questioned whether a patient can ever truly be deemed terminally ill or permanently incapacitated, and whether a request for death can ever be deemed truly consensual. Her speech centered on the classic slippery slope argument; she painted a gloomy picture of a future in which unscrupulous doctors and relatives would take advantage of the grey areas of the new law, and put pressure on the elderly and disabled to go before their time.
Little did the audience know, as Jocelyn Poon took her seat and Professor Grayling stood up to speak, that the debate was practically over. The first two speakers set up a basic dichotomy between principles and practical realities, which persisted through all subsequent speeches. Professor Grayling himself caught on to this fact as he praised the first speaker and expressed the difficulty of saying anything new. Of course, both he and all the other guest speakers had something of their own to add to the debate, some new personal anecdotes or statistics to back up their arguments, but the arguments themselves remained intact and inviolable.
On the proposition side, Professor Grayling, philosopher and founder of the New College of Humanities, MP Richard Ottoway, and Michael Irwin, the former medical director of the United Nations, lent the combined weight of their age and experience to the first speaker’s fiery principles. Professor Grayling strengthened the case for compassion and free will with soft-spoken, reasonable arguments that plunged the whole debate chamber into attentive silence. He brilliantly exposed the inconsistency of the current laws, which, since the 60s, have decriminalised suicide only for those able-bodied enough to carry it out for themselves. MP Richard Ottoway enlivened the debate with a bit of Parliamentary zeal, decrying the failure of government authorities who have avoided dealing with euthanasia in recent years, and Michael Irwin culminated the case for the proposition with his own highly personal meditations on the right to die with dignity. He described four separate occasions on which he had accompanied people to that alternately feared and revered clinic in Switzerland, which he went on to relate to his own experience of aging and infirmity.
The arguments on the opposition side were hardly short of appeals to emotion either; time and time again they brought up visceral examples of the real damage that the legalisation of assisted dying could inflict upon patients. Their main problem however, was not with the proposition’s principles but with their plan. Many even conceded that free will and compassion were inherently just causes, while maintaining that the proposition’s defense of them was practically unfeasible.
The first speaker for the opposition, the well known pro-life campaigner Lord Elton, confounded all the audience’s expectations by failing to bring up any religious or ideological reasons for preserving life. Instead, he focused on the disingenuousness of the proposition’s definition of the motion – the insubstantiality of the legal safeguards that they had attempted to pass off as rock solid. Like Jocelyn Poon, he pointed out hidden grey areas in the law that leave it vulnerable to misuse. Opposition speaker Baroness Finlay then drew upon her extensive clinical experience to illustrate the full horror of this misuse, describing all of the cases of patients that could have ended in tragedy had assisted suicide been legalized. Her speech, which combined unshakeable moral conviction with a firm grasp of the gritty realities of the medical profession, ended up dominating the debate. All subsequent proposition speakers treated it with a degree of uncomfortable reverence, denying before each of their speeches that they had anything against the palliative care facilities of which she is a leading member.
The last speaker, director of the campaign ‘Living and Dying Well’, again called for rationality over starry-eyed principles. He claimed that the debate was not, in fact, about whether or not assisted dying was right or wrong, but whether it could be legalized. The opposition was clearly no more prepared to address the moral side of the question than the proposition was to address the pratical side; as a result, the two sets of arguments never converged, and never clashed, but ran consistently and serenely in parallel lines.
The audience never got a chance to witness principles being compromised by reality, or reality being reshaped according to principles, since neither side would so much as address the other. In the end, the debate was haunted by the possibility that it could have been different; the proposition side could have risked causing offence by specifying why exactly some people would opt out of the palliative care system, and the opposition side have dared the audience’s disapproval by taking a principled stance on the inherent value of life. As it was, the two sides brandished their weapons and then retreated from the field without the slightest clash.