The Life & Times of John Wheater(Farnborough, Wokingham, Bristol, Toronto, Farnham) .

John Wheater 16Jul24 (this page updated 02Mar07)


Someone (Kurt Vonnegut?) said that opinions are like arseholes: everybody's got one, but (mostly) it's not pleasant or interesting.

Nonetheless, there are many topics which I find interesting, and on which I'm happy to share my reflections.

    The Right to Die
    The European Union
    The Relative Importance of Art, Science, and Religion

"Not the Church, Not the State, the Mother Must Decide Her Fate"
was the chant of those in favour of the Abortion Reform of 1967 , directed against those marching for the rights of "The Unborn Child".

Today, forty years on, when one in five pregnancies is ended by abortion, the chant seems archaic. Of course abortion on demand is a good idea; and I write this soon after an abortion procedure has been televised for the first time, showing us all that it is perfectly straightforward and natural.

"And yet", as Stanley Holloway says, "And yet I dawn't gnaw...". Now that remedial surgery is performed on a child in the womb, there is a curious dilemma. You can go in with your instruments and heal a defect; or you can use the instruments to cut and slice, then throw away the remains. The womb contains either a child or a nuisance, and you have to decide which.

And again, there's the curious fact that foetal anaesthetic is now recommended, since pain can be felt, and we don't want to cause distress. But, maybe a creature that can feel pain is on this side of the foetus/child divide. And this concern is sharpened in the case of the 'partial birth' abortions that provoke controversy.

I remember --Benn contributing to a debate on abortion. When his turn came he sucked his pipe, and, in that pseudo-earnest, forceful, way he has (not 'had' at the time of writing - "alas, alas, for England, they have no graves as yet" - google it up), he said "leave it to the women, Bishop - no, no, [stab of pipe], leave it to the women".

But we all make and consent to the law, and the killing of an infant is punished. But who can decide when a foetus becomes a child? Dunno. Or, should a mother be allowed to kill her child up to a certain age? No. Although there used, I think, to exist, the crime of 'infanticide', which was often dealt with leniently.

What is, I think, certain, reviewing the legalisation debate and the talk of 'safeguards', is that the law would never have passed, in the climate of that time, had the legislators known they were legalising on-demand abortion.
It may be of course, that the proposers, like --David Steel, knew perfectly well what the result would be, and, like --Heath on the Common Market, just told a pack of lies.

What is it, in the end, that makes us treat homicide as a serious crime? Will we always do so? Has our view of that seriousness been affected by the legalisation of abortion on demand?

My only firm opinion is that the issue is still controversial, not settled, though some would have us think it is. I'm uneasy about it, partly because I don't know the basis for morality, for defining right action, in a secular state. It's easy, I imagine, for Christians, but there aren't many left; too few, certainly, to use their belief as a basis for law.

The Right To Die.
If you feel like it, you may turn up at the Exit Office of the National Health Service and ask to be put down. The only ground for refusal is that your response to a simple request for confirmation shows you incapable of rational decision. This judgment, specially excluded from appeal or compensation procedures, is made by non-medical staff of magistrate calibre, chosen for common sense and humanity.
In fact, there are no medical staff at all in the Exit Office. Medical advice is limited to supplying the pills and telling us how to take them.

When you've taken the pills, and died, your body is photographed. This image, together with any identity information you have chosen to supply, is kept on file for a hundred years. Your body is kept for a month; then, if no-one has claimed it, it is incinerated and consigned to the APU, as it's known - the Ash Pit of the Unclaimed.

It is my view that such an Exit Office should be brought into being. The need intersects the Euthanasia Debate, but is not confined to its terms; that debate focuses on such matters as is he truly in intolerable pain? ... is he truly incurable? ... would improper pressure be exercised by relatives? and so forth.

Such matters are irrelevant and impertinent in the face of a person's right to choose his own death. This right is disputed by Christians, who surrender to the perceived will of God. You can choose suicide, but it is a furtive, shameful act, uncertain, often involving agony and fear.

Here again, it is not right that Christian beliefs should dictate law in a secular society. Chesterton thought we were 'living on our Catholic capital', but some things, like execution by burning, or prolonging a painful unwanted life, are less desirable than others. The Christian Church may be right, and all its beliefs absolutely true. Most of us, however, think this is not the case.
And, I assert, this issue is simpler than that of abortion; here the life in question is being surrendered voluntarily by its possessor.
Possessor, that is, as far as the state may judge. In the olden days it was said that the suicide performed a double disservice: firstly to the King, in depriving him of a useful servant, and secondly to God, in thrusting himself unsummoned into His presence.

It is time for our masters to recognise that the wish not to live may be perfectly rational, and not a symptom of mental illness. This recognition will no doubt be hastened by the economic benefits - those of us who enjoy life, who love good food and company, and who love each other, will not apply to the EO; those who do apply would, if they lived, probably cost the state money. But, of course, they can live and be a burden if they wish - the EO is only for volunteers...

When the essential civility of the EO is recognised, I imagine a family ceremony would become customary. After telling them your decision (greeted by feelings ranging from wild delight to inconsolable sadness) you could say goodbye to each in whatever manner you thought appropriate. And then, off to the EO.
Quite often, it might be, you'd change your mind, a decision greeted by feelings ranging from inconsolable sadness to wild delight.
The important thing is, it's your decision.
"Not the Church, Not the State, the Person Must Decide His Fate". (compare Abortion above).

And consider the wise words of Mr Locke in 1685, from his Essay on Toleration:

...Now that the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments, and that all civil power, right and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls, these following considerations seem unto me abundantly to demonstrate...

The lump is maybe being leavened in our time - googling for "rational suicide" gave 1900 hits in May 2004, 26,000 in March 2007, one of which discusses the case of Carolyn Heilbrun, who killed herself with pills & plastic bag in 2003, aged 77. Civilised society could offer an alternative to furtive, makeshift methods such as this. The medics don't like it, their power being undermined & their mission rejected. Reject their Daneekan suggestion that "If you want to end your life you cannot be rational". Politicos don't like it either - it's no fun bossing people about if they can just quietly say no. But they might support it if it meant they still had people to run, and could lower taxes.

John Wheater - John.Wheater@gmail.com

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