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‘Neutrality’ on assisted suicide is a step forward


I’m OK with uncertainty. When I was younger I didn’t like it, I thought it unhelpful – as it can be when you’re trying to decide whether or not to duck when someone has thrown a brick at you. But as I’ve got older, I have come to admire people who can hold on to uncertainty until all the information is in.

So I think the RCN adopting a position of ‘neutrality’ on the topic of assisted suicide makes sense. Of course the small number of people who actively contributed to that decision does not adequately represent nursing but that sort of makes sense too. If a large organisation cannot represent the breadth and power of feeling that something like assisted suicide generates, it should instead hold a thoughtful ambivalence. Or to put it another way, the RCN has tended over the years to spend loads of time sitting on the fence, so sooner or later it was bound to find itself there for the right reasons.

But have you noticed beneath the complex debate once again a number of single issue action groups have sprung up to campaign, agitate and generally demand that – in the face of collective uncertainty and meditation – they know absolutely what is best?

An organisation called Dignity in Dying recently welcomed a poll for The Times that revealed 74% of people wanted doctors to be allowed to help terminally ill patients end their lives. However, another group – the Care not Killing Alliance – condemned the results as the ‘knee-jerk approval of the worried well’.

These days it seems every opinion comes with its own action group, campaign strategy and communications officer. Journalists love them because they offer up quotes that don’t represent anyone but give a hint of controversy and thus newsworthiness.

‘The difficulty with many of the ethical issues that surround health care is that some organisations replace collective meditation with shouting’

Organisations like CORE (angry about reproductive technology) and JABS (angry about immunisation), for example, are groups with probably more than a dozen members who can be relied on to speak out in ways that amount to a shrill ‘Down with that sort of thing!’ and in so doing create the impression they know what they are talking about.

The difficulty with many of the ethical issues that surround health care is that some people, and indeed some organisations, replace collective meditation with shouting. They get themselves a letterhead and campaign fiercely for whatever it is they believe. Does it help? Maybe. It polarises and encapsulates – albeit in an often charmless way – but maybe we stop hearing opinions and perspective and instead hear ideology and self-righteousness.

Assisted suicide is a complex issue. Professional bodies that are perceived to speak for large numbers of people need to find a way to reflect that complexity respectfully. Neutrality does that better than opposition because it demands open-mindedness and an ensuing debate.

It would be nice to think that that debate, like so many others, can involve a range of people, and not just the self-elected single interest groups, because the subject matter demands something considerably better than what they tend to bring.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Mark doesn't mind uncertainty but some people are not uncertain about their views on important issues. This may be because they have some definite terms of reference that they espouse for their lives, a faith in God or another kind of moral compass. It has become unpopular to believe in absolutes and it isn't easy to apply ones belief to such a complex issue but Mark, in a most charming way, seems to be dismissive of groups who have decided what they think about a single issue and choose to voice these thoughts in legitamate ways. He may choose to wait until all the information is in before expressing his own opinion, participating in a process I don't quite understand: 'collective meditation', but he seems not to enjoy the collective view being expressed of members belonging to single interest groups. These are an important part of the debate that should continue, even if they seem a little shrill to Mark.

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  • i find myself struggling to see marks point here apart from oooh i agree with the rcns stance and what about those terrible single issue groups....its all their fault.

    the rcn is a body supposedly dedicated to protecting and proactively supporting vulnerable individuals.

    neutrality is a weak copout. are they neutral about pallative care? the treatment of the mentally ill? the treatment of dementing patients? assaults on nurses inthe workplace? maybe they should be.

    we all have issues around which we get emotive or feel we have a stake in. to declare neutrality is not a particularly strong position (think Sweden) or a political masterstroke. it is in fact stepping out of the very debate that mark radcliffe seems to also be not involving himself in.

    a discussion about not discussing something is almost painfully pointless, can we please not have any more of such triteness presented as journalism

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  • neutrality 'sitting on the fence'. better than supporting the notion that its ok to help somebody take their life i suppose. pity help the vulnerable further down the road!!! we have a society unfortunatley where there are no absolutes.
    wont be long before people without capacity to decide on future care for themselves will have somebody make such decisions on their behalf. will this become another criteria for IMCA referral?

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