Do we have a right to ill-health and an early death?

With a media epidemic of obesity-panic, do we not have a right to choose ill health and an early death?

Toby Hambly
21 January 2014

image - wikimedia

In a brief scan of the papers today at my local petrol station, it seemed that the most important story worthy of front page attention was the supposed ‘obesity crisis’. This is thanks to a report by the National Obesity Forum that claims that the predictions made in a report in 2007 - most notably that half the population will be obese by 2050 - may have grossly underestimated the scale of the issue. 

In an unsurprising exhibition of the paucity of the journalistic rigour in our time, the Guardian, the Expressthe Telegraph, the Daily Mail and BBC news have all unquestioningly churned this non-story into a thick consensus of doomsday nonsense. The Independent parroted this ‘news’ but buried it on page 10. As with many issues in recent months, it was only until I navigated to Spiked online magazine that I was greeted with what used to be called journalism. 

First then, the claims themselves. Is British society going to be beset by a scourge of obese children and overweight parents wheezing their way to an early grave? Is the remaining portion of the populace, the better informed apparently superior constituency, going to have to pick up the financial burden on our health system? Well, not necessarily, and certainly not according to Rob Lyons or the Health Survey for England. There is a pile of data that furnishes a less apocalyptic conclusion - that in fact rates of obesity have flattened out and fallen away slightly in the last few years. 

That not one of the outlets covering this story has questioned the statistics could be slightly offensive to those who demand some acuity from the news media, but it should not be altogether surprising in this case. There is a veritable cacophony of self-righteous and holier-than-thou voices that have grown in strength as the notion of personal responsibility has diminished in the popular imagination of politics. 

The current that underwrites and gives strength to these voices is one that denies the basic right to decide the trajectory of one’s own life and health. The question that no-one is facing is, simply, do we have a right to be unhealthy and die early of diseases brought on by smoking, drinking or eating too much or don’t we? The consensus around moral lifestyle crusades is allowed room to breathe and expand due to the side-lining of this question. Either the law allows people to damage their health or it does not. Why is it insisted upon that we waste so much time and energy skirting this fundamental question, while investing ourselves in ways to nudge and redirect the helpless masses away from that which they couldn’t otherwise resist?

The miserabalist doomsdayers form and advocate what I feel can be reasonably called a non-opinion. A non-opinion is something that is based more in the necessities of self-regarding moral supremacy than those of argument, logic, reason and dialectic. A non-opinion therefore arranges itself against a supposed antithesis in order to draw moral reverence to the cause. In this case the supposed antithesis is someone arguing, “I hate life, I want people to die early of obesity and I think kids should smoke ‘cos it’s cool”. Of course no-one would ever argue such a thing giving the original non-opinion the veneer of objectivity and total uncritical acceptance. 

The supposed obesity epidemic is a perfect storm for non-opinion of this type as well as a good opportunity to use the phrase ‘tax-payers money’. After all, even someone committed to personal responsibility and agency can see the problem with an overburdened health system. The NHS is stretched as it is so any step away from the stigmatisation of ill-health by choice might push it to breaking point… right?

Well again, not necessarily. It makes an immediate and lazy form of sense to implicate the NHS in a supposed crisis of health because it allows individual’s choices to come under the remit of the moral hierarchy of others. It places the overweight person and the smoker in the same all inclusive term ‘tax-payers’ and thus blankets an imagined debt between members of society for their private choices. But there is decent evidence to show that far from reducing the collective burden on healthcare, curbing obesity causes more long term cost to the system. Whatever it costs to treat obesity related illness pales in comparison to the costs of keeping people alive past a point. Dying early reduces the burden on the healthcare system even if that involves some treatment in the declining phase. If people want to make this an argument about cost then far from requiring higher duties to pay for the unhealthy choices of others, we should really be subsidising them. 

I would like a discussion of the central question - do we have a right to an early death and ill-health or don’t we? Provided that there is sufficient information available to free such a right from the coercion of ignorance, I would say that yes we do have that right. Indeed, if we don’t have the right to choreograph our own demise then where does that leave us? If, in the end, we owe our life to something other than our own decisions and agency, then of what importance are those decisions?

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