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U.K. Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption. Université Bordeaux Montaigne via YouTube
Anthony McCarthy

Opinion, ,

Former UK Supreme Court judge encourages breaking laws against assisted suicide

Anthony McCarthy

May 9, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Just before Easter, the Right Honourable Lord Sumption, OBE, a recently retired British Supreme Court Judge, gave his first Reith lecture. In the course of it, he told the audience, “The law should continue to criminalise assisted suicide” while adding: “And I think that the law should be broken from time to time”. There is, he said, “No moral obligation to obey the law”, and although “it has always been ... criminal ... courageous friends and families have helped people to die”.

The Reith lectures

The prestigious Reith lectures are broadcast annually by the BBC and aim “to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.” The BBC remains a hugely important cultural institution, both in the U.K. and beyond, in spite of the rise of other media. It is not a small matter who is selected to be the Reith lecturer.  

Looking down the list of past Reith lecturers, who have included Bertrand Russell, Edmund Leach, Jeffrey Sachs, Ian Kennedy, and Grayson Perry, one notices how often those promoting sexual liberation, population control, and post-Hippocratic medicine have been given centre stage. In contrast, voices defending marriage and the family, the poor who want to have children, and the genuine goals of medicine scarcely get a look in.

Tragic life

Sumption, who is a talented and accomplished lawyer and mediaeval historian, follows in the tradition of BBC lecturers undermining traditional legal and moral precepts with an authoritative and powerful voice. His topic for the first lecture was law’s empire and the way it has expanded as people seek to reduce personal risk. It was in the course of discussing these issues that he ended up answering a question concerning assisted suicide, in a way that gave a glimpse of the moral thinking underlying his approach to human dignity itself.

Sumption’s history

Back in the 1970s, Sumption wrote speeches for the Conservative minister Sir Keith Joseph, a right-wing ideologue beloved of the group that went on to be known as ‘Thatcherites’. In 1974, Joseph told an audience, in the context of talking about poor unmarried mothers:

The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened[.] … Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness which are more important than riches. They are producing problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, sub-normal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters….A high proportion of these births are a tragedy for the mother, the child and for us… If we do nothing, the nation moves towards degeneration, however much resources we pour into preventative work and the over-burdened educational system.

Sir Keith went on to propose increasing provision of birth control for these unfortunates. These words, it later transpired, were put together by Sumption. Sumption was later to act for Tony Blair’s government in the Hutton Enquiry, generally recognised as a whitewash of the government’s now largely acknowledged lies that got Britain into the Iraq War. His relentless attacks on journalists who had had the temerity to point out these lies helped achieve the outcome Blair’s deeply corrupt government desired against the BBC.


Lawyers, of all people, should be aware of the truth enunciated by the anti-utopian thinker Aurel Kolnai:

The equality of the rights of men is grounded on their equal (and exclusive) capacity to be subjects of law, and this is inseparable from their being in some sense equal as a matter of fact.

Kolnai explains:

[T]he concept of human equality is not merely a formal, comparative one, but it is rooted in the very concept of man. The mutual relation between two men is morally and metaphysically relevant only because the solitary existence of a single man is relevant too…For the moral, even, for the most part, the intellectual and material existence of men, is inseparable from the element of equality...a real dawn of awareness and development as a person is possible only within a community, and community, as the reciprocity of personal beings, immediately raises the problem of equality. Equality, in a word, is a requirement not of the satisfaction of our sense of symmetry, but of the precious and ensured existence of human personality.

Recall Sumption, with his claim that “a high proportion of these births are a tragedy for the mother, the child and for us”. In proposing solutions that hardly respect the dignity of women, and any offspring born despite our sterilising efforts, he reveals himself to be an enemy of equality — understood not in some utopian sense, but simply in a sense referring to basic human dignity. 

Sumption’s remarks at the Reith lectures follow this trajectory. For, while he is alive to the problems that exist with regard to abuse of laws permitting assisted suicide (and the evidence by now is overwhelming to anyone with eyes to see), he himself very publicly and prominently recommends breaking the law in this area in certain circumstances. As the social historian Ann Farmer has pointed out, Sumption would doubtless treat much more severely someone who did not believe in a moral obligation to obey the law when it comes to taking someone’s property as opposed to someone’s life.

The assumption seems to be that when it comes to certain lives (but presumably not others), a family can act virtuously (“courageous friends and families have helped people to die”) in assisting people to kill themselves. How might we judge, though, which lives are worthy of self-termination? No matter: Some individuals have some kind of moral right to self-terminate when they are no longer satisfied with their lives in a particular condition. Whether their lives are seen as having no value or as having a value ‘outweighed’ by the burden of their illness, life itself, at least in some situations, is treated as just another thing about which the person can decide.

As David Velleman has pointed out, while we can understand that persons may have special insight into their own preferences, when it comes to the value and dignity of their own lives, there is no reason to assume that they have a special insight, for we are talking about something the value of which is beyond them, something which needs to be lived up to rather than treated as just another cost or benefit — namely, the dignity of being a member of the human race and the dignity of possessing a human nature that is ‘you’ in an individuated sense.

Aside from this, the whole notion of human dignity, demanding of moral respect, is concerned with a particular nature constituting who we are regardless of our present condition. How does one lose this, other than by ceasing to be a member of the human species? Insofar as one is a member of the human species, one has this rational kind of nature which is the ground of our moral importance, an importance not separable from that nature. And while some will object that human dignity and the value of human life are not quite one and the same, it seems quite anomalous to say that someone is very important morally but that his very existence in the world should be neither valued nor protected.  Certainly, it seems anomalous to claim that it is precisely because of a concern for ‘human dignity’ that one is self-terminating (i.e., that one’s very existence in the world is now somehow an affront to one’s own dignity).

Sumption, in 1974,  regarded certain lives — those of an underclass — as “tragic” for “us” as well as for their “owners” (unbeknownst perhaps to those owners). Now he condemns a group, supported by their “brave” families and friends, to deliberate extinction on account of their suicidal preferences (and, presumably, their medical condition). Clearly, the judge has not begun to understand the nature of human dignity, which amounts to something rather more fundamental than our preferences or those of other people. After all, at the basis of both love and justice is the idea that at very least, we can all say, looking at each other: “It is good that you exist”.

Increasingly, we see assisted suicide legalised in state after state in the U.S. Those with similar or worse attitudes to human dignity than Sumption’s are making decisions which further entrench the idea of lives not worthy of life. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act (note how the meaning of the word ‘dignity’ has shifted) has served as a paradigm for other legislatures in the U.S. and elsewhere. In Oregon, as Professor John Keown has explained, “the two most frequent reasons for assessing PAS [Physician Assisted Suicide] have consistently been ‘existential’ loss of autonomy and an inability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable. Moreover, concern about being a burden on others has motivated up to a half.” (The latter concern is, moreover, rising.)

In other words, the felt loss of certain capacities, as well as feelings of being inconvenient to others, drives people to undermine their own dignity by ending their lives with the full encouragement of the state. Rather than seeing the moral significance of their capacities, full or diminished, as deriving from their inherent value or dignity as human beings, they are encouraged to see things the other way around or at least, to seek their own destruction as bearers of insufficient value. As this attitude spreads from state to state, it is important to remember that while dignity ultimately comes from above, dignity is the one defence we have against elites who would undermine the claims following from its recognition.

Dr Anthony McCarthy is director of research at SPUC, author of Ethical Sex: Sexual Choices and Their Nature and Meaning (Fidelity Press, 2016), and editor of Abortion Matters (Philos Publications, 2018).

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