What the ‘right to die’ debate tells us about sovereignty

Many readers will be familiar with the ongoing debate in the UK around the ‘right to die’. The campaign group Dignity in Dying is calling for a change in the law with a new assisted dying bill to give terminally ill people choice in how and when they die.

However, things aren’t as simple as they may first seem. While many people may well argue that developed nations should not treat their citizens worse than animals, there have been many dissenting voices who suggest that an assisted dying bill may put pressure on people to take their own lives; it may even be a ‘slippery slope’ of legislation that discriminates against the most vulnerable people.

Making decisions

Of course, there are some legitimate concerns over how any sort of assisted dying bill would be implemented and put into practice. Certainly, checks and balances will need to be put in place in order to protect vulnerable people from exploitation. However, many of these are already covered by existing legislation. The Mental Capacity Act (2005) for example is quite clear on how capacity should be assessed, and there is extensive case law to back this up.

However, what is so interesting for me, as a researcher, is how the language around a proposed assisted dying bill very much evolves around how a bill would give people the legal right to take their own life. But of course, this expression is a complete contradiction in terms. Because, after all, there is no recourse to the law once you are dead.

A brief history of sovereignty

Philosophers have long debated the nature of sovereignty and the power that ‘sovereign’ rulers can wield over the lives of citizens.

Back in feudal times, sovereign power was wielded by kings and queens whose power was based on their ability to kill. The frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) famously depicts a huge sovereign king figure made up of thousands of tiny people, wielding a sword over his citizens.

Frontispiece from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

This power was tied very much to the power of life and death, where the sovereign could decide to kill you (often in terrible ways) should you not obey.

The first chapter to Michel Foucault’s philosophical treatise Discipline and Punish (1975/1977) includes a quite horrific scene where Robert-François Damiens is publicly tortured and put to death in the most gruesome of ways in order to make a spectacle of sovereign power.

However, the world has changed since then. Foucault himself argues that power is now biopolitical in nature. It is no longer the case that the sovereign exercises power through killing per se, but rather the power to let live. This is an important distinction, and marks an important turning point in modern civilisation. It is not so much the case that citizens live in fear of being killed, but rather that the sovereign controls the terms on which we live. This concept of biopolitics is hotly debated, and has discussed in great detail most famously perhaps, by philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

The age of bioviolence

Of course, biopolitical power can be problematic. Prof. William Watkin (my own former Masters supervisor) has suggested that this control over daily life can be read as a form of violence – or Bioviolence as he calls it. It’s not just that our sovereign overlords dictate the conditions on which life is based, but also that through inaction (such as failing to support the poor), they are also committing a form of violence: the violence of inaction. He cites examples such as Grenfell Tower as a form of legitimised murder by a state that (either knowingly or unknowingly) refuses to act.

Biopolitics and the right to die

In this context, we might well argue that failure to enact an assisted dying bill is also a form of bioviolence against a group of people who are being forced to suffer, as to let them die would be to undermine the very foundations on which modern power is based.

If we let terminally people die in a manner of their own choosing then we admit that the state cannot protect us. We also admit that power is not quite as centrally located as the powers that be would have us believe.

For me, this is the most telling aspect of the right to die debate, and something that often goes unsaid. We talk about the ‘law’ and whether assisted dying is legal or not. But of course, to die is to leave the law behind completely. The ‘law’ as such is only ever an artificial construct that we adhere to for the purpose of social cohesion.

This is why politicians and people in power are so worried about the right to die. It’s not an issue of suffering: it’s an issue of who has ultimate control over who lives and dies.

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