Fresh legislation will soon be brought forward at the Scottish Parliament to legalise assisted suicide or, as it is often, euphemistically called “assisted dying”. At Westminster, similar plans have already been lodged in private member’s legislation by Baroness Meacher. Jersey is also expected to pursue a change in the law. The liklihood of assisted suicide becoming law somewhere in the United Kingdom has never been higher.
The debate surrounding assisted suicide is highly emotive. The UK proposals focus on patients with terminal illness — a terrible ordeal that most of us will have encountered at some stage in the lives of our family members or friends. A few years ago, I lost someone close to me to terminal cancer. It was an awful thing to live through for the person, and a very hard thing for friends and family to witness. My loved one went from being full of life and humour to being weak, pain-racked and withdrawn. So I can empathise with those who want such people to be able to end it all.
But in making any decision this big we must consider the effect it might have on people in similar situations who do not want to end their lives. Giving certain patients access to doctor-assisted suicide would affect every person living with a terminal illness by putting a new option of state-sanctioned suicide before them. For some people, particularly those who are lonely or depressed, this option may push them down a dark path that they would never have contemplated before, and which leads to great heartbreak.
As a society, we rightly view suicide as an awful tragedy, and something to be prevented at all costs. No citizen should be affirmed in the idea that their life isn’t worth living, whatever their circumstances. We offer those at risk of suicide empathy and support. We draw alongside them in the dark valley and give them all the help they need to be free from suicidal thoughts. Assisted suicide would undermine this compassionate response, legitimising suicide as an option and sending a dangerous message to society at large.
In jurisdictions that have legalised euthanasia, there is evidence of a rise in suicide more widely. A 2015 study from the United States found that making it legal for doctors to assist someone to end their life resulted in a 6.3 per cent increase in total suicides. The report’s authors concluded that changing the law was associated with “an increased inclination to suicide in others”. Changing the law to allow has engendered a culture change. Suicide is now viewed as more acceptable
A change in the law could also affect many other people in society, if not immediately then certainly in the years after the change was made. In practically every jurisdiction that has legalised assisted suicide, access to the law has soon been widened to allow people suffering with non-terminal conditions to access an “assisted death”. In Europe, people with dementia, depression and even children can access assisted suicide and euthanasia — the taking of a patient’s life by a doctor.
Disabled people are amongst the most ardent opponents of assisted suicide, noting the negative attitudes towards their community in other countries that allow the practice. Campaign group Not Dead Yet states: “Killing is not just another medical treatment option, and it must not be made any part of routine health care…We believe that legalising assisted suicide will inevitably lead to increasingly adverse judgements about the quality of life of disabled people.”
Logic dictates that an incremental extension of the law would occur in the UK as well. What evidence can campaigners for a change present to guarantee that it will not? When “choice” is given to one group in society, access is demanded by others. Even now, there are forces at work in the UK demanding a wider assisted suicide law. For example, campaign group Friends at the End advocates for “the right of everyone…to die at a time and place of their choosing”. The group states that “a voluntary, persistent request” for assisted suicide should be all that is required. The idea that any person who persistently wants to end their life should be allowed to do so is extreme, and contrary to the value system that underpins our caring professions.
To dispute the idea of an inevitable extension of the law, proponents of assisted suicide point to supposed “safeguards” However, safeguards in other jurisdictions have failed. Who is to say they will not in the UK? Politicians? Campaigners? Are we willing to stake people’s lives on the word of these groups? Safeguards are open to abuse.
Medical prognoses are fraught with uncertainty. Some people given six months to live go on to live for years. Assisted suicide could cut short a person’s life, denying them precious experiences – more time with family, the arrival of a grandchild or the deepening of friendships.
For patients facing terminal illness, the suffering they face is usually to do with existential problems, rather than practical ones, like pain relief. A person may want to access assisted suicide because they feel like a drain on family members. Doctors are fallible. There is no guarantee that they will detect such feelings in a patient who wishes to end their life, or discourage them from seeking to do so because of their motivation.
There is also an ever-present threat of coercion. Consider this testimony, from a consultant forensic psychiatrist: “We must not be naive or ignorant of the terrible abuses which have happened. Harold Shipman is one of the most prolific serial killers in modern history. He was a GP who was able to murder 15 patients under his care. The Liverpool Care Pathway was developed to support patients, but it was dubbed the ‘road to death’ and accused of killing off thousands of elderly patients. Medical homicide is a real and significant danger, and while I have not witnessed anything on the scale of these two examples, I have seen NHS professionals become more focussed on preserving resources than saving lives. Legislation to bring in assisted dying would open the door to more horrific abuses.”
UK politicians have turned down assisted suicide legislation several times before. They must do so again. Assisted suicide places the lives of people with terminal illnesses, disabilities, and mental health conditions at risk. And it leads to a culture of death that explicitly endorses suicide. In a post-COVID context where budgets are stretched, the danger of the practice being incentivised is also huge.
Our society deserves better. Instead of opening the door to assisted suicide, with all of its attendant risks, politicians can pursue truly compassionate policies for those implicated by a change in the law.
This article was first published in The Critic on 10 July 2021