Campaigning Against Euthanasia on the Isle of Man

Legalising euthanasia is in the air on the Isle of Man.  Back in 2003, two members of the House of Keys (the Lower House of the Island’s Tynwald, ‘the oldest parliament in the world in continuous existence’) had a go.  A Bill was introduced, a Select Committee was set up, a Report was produced and that was that – there was no appetite for change.  This September, the Island has a general election and a little group, headed by MHK Quintin Gill and driven by Dying in Dignity [formerly, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society], wish to raise the issue again.  Dignity in Dying has apparently selected the Island, a self-governing UK Crown dependency, as an independently-minded place, where its 80,000 inhabitants might just be persuaded to approve the legalisation of doctor-assisted suicide, or some such form of euthanasia. 

With this in mind, LIFE Isle of Man invited me to speak at several meetings during the first week of April with the purpose of explaining the issues, strengthening numerous backbones and galvanising some action.  The various Isle of Man media had advertised me as ‘an expert’, ‘a renowned lecturer’ and ‘a leading anti-euthanasia campaigner’, so the heat was on!

We left Aberystwyth on Thursday 31 March for the 2.5-hour car journey to Liverpool, crossed under the Mersey via the 2.5-mile Queensway Tunnel and caught the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s high-speed catamaran car ferry, Manannan, for the 2.5-hour crossing to Douglas.

I started the morning of Friday 1 April with a recorded interview on Manx Radio.  It was subsequently broadcast several times.  Then there was a lunch followed by an address, The Case Against Euthanasia, to Tynwald members – 14 out of 24 attended, which on a non-sitting day was pretty impressive.  The Speaker, the chaplain of the House and the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man were also present.  They listened well.  I concluded, ‘You do not need a Dignitas in Douglas, it would be bad medicine, bad ethics, bad law, bad public policy, and bad for your people.’  A genuinely-probing Q & A session followed.  Mr Gill did not respond to any of my arguments, but instead nitpicked at some of the words I had used.  All those present were presented with copies of my book, The Edge of Life – Mr Gill took three for his absent colleagues.  During my talk I committed the almost unforgiveable faux pas – I referred to the UK as the ‘mainland’, whereas every good Manxman knows that the Island is the Mainland and that the UK is ‘over there’.  I think they forgave me!

So to Ballakermeen High School for a general talk, Bioethics in the Twenty-First Century, scheduled for sixth-form students and their RE teachers.  The organisers doubted if many/any would come because it began after school on a Friday.  To their great surprise about 40 came from several of the Island’s schools, plus Mr Gill, by now, fast becoming my biggest fan!  I gave a brief outline of bioethics and then moved on to look at the specific issues of abortion, stem cell technology, assisted reproductive technologies and euthanasia.  As I began to tackle these issues, the hands began to go up and what developed was a genuine rapport driven by this informal Q & A session.  Such was their interest, time ran out before we got to discuss euthanasia.

In the evening, there was a meeting for Christian leaders – Opposing Euthanasia.  About 20 attended, which was a disappointment to the organisers, but for me, they were welcome jewels – some with dog collars, some in jeans, but all with considerable influence among their congregations and beyond.  Decent listening, questioning and book buying – what more can we ask?

Saturday was the LIFE Conference at St John’s Mill, a beautifully-restored mill house.  The morning session by Ira Winter from LIFE HQ was on LIFE FertilityCare and was disappointingly attended, but then it is a rather specialised topic.  The afternoon was a public session on The Truth about Euthanasia and was attended by about 50, including some from the local Dignity in Dying group.  My talk went OK, but the Q & A was mixed.  Three elderly ladies somewhat hijacked it by giving excessively emotional accounts of their relatives' apparently miserable deaths, which were of little help to the general discussion.  These women thought I was naïve to believe that palliative care was either beneficial or sufficient.  The truth was that none of them had prepared for death beforehand, either for their own, or for that of their loved ones.  In addition, it was clear that none had grieved properly after their relatives’ deaths.  One of the Conference attendees, a nurse, who had attended one of the mothers referred to, told me afterwards that she was well looked after during her last days and that her death was precipitated by a massive stroke.  Yet the poor daughter insisted that the doctors had killed her mother, which was simply not true.  It is all too easy to think that doctors fail us when our loved ones die, but that is because too many of us have a faulty view of life, death and medicine.  When a terminally-ill patient is dying and finally dies, death is not the doctor's deliberate intention or failure to do his job – it is an entirely natural event that we must all face.  Romans 5:12 should unnerve us all.

The evening venture was a bold one – a public meeting in the Java Coffee Lounge in Douglas for a talk entitled, Euthanasia Uncovered.  About 30 turned up and the ensuing Q & A session was so much better than the previous afternoon’s.  It ranged from freedom of choice to the Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP), with a minor distraction of caring for animals in between.

Sunday morning, I spoke on Biblical Bioethics at Broadway Baptist Church to a congregation of, I don’t know, 250?  They listened well, bought many books and the organisers were thrilled.

Though all the talks were different, they had a common thread.  Medical ethics and practice based on the Hippocratic Oath and the Judaeo-Christian doctrines have kept medicine safe for 20 centuries – both forbid euthanasia.  Euthanasia defined – voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary, plus active and passive.  Lexical engineering precedes social engineering.  The current worldwide situation – legalisations and recent rejections (at least 8 legislatures have defeated euthanasia bills in the last 16 months, including in December 2010, the Scottish Parliament by 85 votes to 16).  Euthanasia in the Netherlands.  The current UK situation – 1961 Suicide Act.  Recent challenges to this Act.  Euthanasia and palliative care.  The ‘clamour’ for euthanasia.  Doctors and euthanasia.  Legal criteria for euthanasia.  Burdens of legalised euthanasia.  Fears associated with dying.  The case of Anthony Bland.  The three medical dominoes – abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.

Monday morning, Wendy and I were invited to the home of one of the MHKs, by reputation, a political loose cannon.  Two other party members were present and we had a valuable 90-minute discussion.  They all feared any legalisation of euthanasia.  It would, they agreed, change the public perception of the Isle of Man, as a holiday destination and TT race venue – who would fancy a trip to an island where they deliberately kill people?  In the afternoon, we were free and so we headed back to the location of Saturday’s Conference to retrieve Wendy’s car key, lost, then found.  On we went to admire the fishing port of Peel and a lunch of Manx kippers for me and Manx scallops, called queenies, for Wendy – wonderful.

Tuesday morning we visited the newish Hospice Isle of Man and spent over an hour on a guided tour and educational discussion with the medical director, Dr Ben Harris.  The facilities are superb – just the sort of place to spend your last days.  He later e-mailed me, ‘Thank you for coming to the Island to clearly give the anti-euthanasia message.  I do hope that the pro-euthanasia lobby realise that there is no desire for legalised euthanasia on the Isle of Man.’  That was a fitting end to our visit.

We boarded the Manannan catamaran for our trip ‘off Island’ – it blew up a force 6 and we cannot say we enjoyed it.  All in all, the visit was a 7/10 experience – we always want more people at meetings, more incisive arguments, more commitment among hearers.  For instance, where were the Roman Catholics?  Apparently 300+ attended Mass in Douglas on the Sunday, but just a few attended any of the meetings.  And what about the LIFE Group members?  There are some 60+ on the books – we saw only a handful.  But in terms of a preliminary foray to raise the issues and educate the willing, it was a considerable success.  As we said our farewells to the LIFE Committee I told them, ‘The battle starts here and now – over to you.’

We are indebted to many.  To LIFE Isle of Man for daring to invite me and for organising the whole endeavour.  To Hon. David Anderson MHK for hosting the Tynwald meeting.  To Ian and Fiona Cameron for accommodating and feeding us so generously.  To those who gave of their time to attend the various meetings.  So now the Isle of Man has a special place in our hearts.

[We saw no Manx cats, though we did spot Jeremy Clarkson playing with two dogs at his lighthouse property.   Did you know the Island has its own currency?  No, nor did I, but I have a five-pound note to prove it.]

Postscript - on Thursday 29 September, the Island held elections to the House of Keys.  Quintin Gill lost his seat!

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