Viewers of the long-running ITV soap Emmerdale were subjected to uncharacteristically harrowing scenes last week. Thursday’s programme portrayed a character named Faith Dingle, who had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, taking her own life. In previous episodes, Faith had shared her fears about what dying from a terminal illness involves. The impetus for this plot couldn’t be clearer – it’s an ill-veiled campaign pitch for ‘assisted dying’.
This fact is even more obvious when you consider that Dignity in Dying, the UK’s foremost campaign for legal assisted suicide, has worked hand in glove with Emmerdale script writers. A Tweet from the organisation confirmed that staff had “worked closely with Emmerdale” on the development of the storyline. An earlier press release also boasted that it had been “consulted” and said the plot would be useful to its aims.
It is disturbing to me that a British soap has allowed controversial activists to exploit its considerable platform. Assisted suicide campaigners have been accused of using misleading rhetoric, whipping up fear about end of life experiences, and portraying a harmful, false binary between suffering and suicide in the context of terminal illness. It’s shocking that this group, which ditched its previous title of the ‘Voluntary Euthanasia Society’ in 2006, is crafting story lines on mainstream TV.
Groups like Dignity in Dying used to be considered beyond the pale for suggesting that terminally ill people should be prescribed a dose of poison. Our society is better than that. We offer help, hope, and solidarity to the suffering and counsel against suicide. Why, in such a society, are radical campaigners now being ushered into mainstream media circles to preach their idea that scared, lonely, depressed, or hopeless human beings should be pushed over the proverbial precipice?
Some outlets seem to be acting as de facto mouthpieces for assisted suicide activism, giving carte blanche to misleading rhetoric. Activists want legal assisted suicide – that is the term used by serious ethicists and lawyers. However, they mask their aims with the vague, euphemistic term ‘assisted dying’. This term, which is understood differently by different people, has been accepted without question. It’s a campaign tactic. Orwellian phrases like “shortening death” are also employed.
Some Brits are sympathetic to the idea of facilitating a quick, painless death for citizens suffering from a terminal illness. But not many people will be aware of what is actually involved in ‘assisted dying’. Proponents don’t like to talk honestly about the practice they promote. It’s easy to see why. In a piece for The Spectator, Joel Zivot, a practicing anaesthesiologist, and intensive care doctor, outlined his concerns that assisted suicide is not the painless end campaigners describe:
“I am quite certain that assisted suicide is not painless or peaceful or dignified. In fact, in the majority of cases, it is a very painful death. Laws in Oregon, like those proposed in the UK, require patients to take the drugs themselves, which rules out any form of general anaesthetic. Often patients are handed anti-sickness and anti-seizure tablets but nothing more in preparation, meaning they’re very much awake as the assisted suicide process begins.”
Stressing the collateral damage to loved ones watching the process unfold, Mr Zivot added: “Without a general anaesthetic, many will be in great discomfort, even if outwardly they don’t appear to be suffering. Indeed, there are countless examples of people who have discovered just how messy, painful, and distressing it can be as they watched their loved ones go through the process…Advocates of assisted dying owe a duty to the public to be truthful about the details”.
A study published in the British Medical Bulletin this year examining drugs used in assisted deaths similarly stressed that: “the prevalence of complications and failures in intentionally ending life suggest that ‘assisted dying’ applicants are at risk of distressing deaths”. The study found patients can experience burning, nausea, vomiting and regurgitation, and other distressing symptoms – in front of distraught loved ones. Is this really what a dignified death looks like?
An examination ofdata from Oregon, a US State assisted suicide campaigners like to point to, further illustrates the horror of assisted deaths. Between 2001 and 2021, 7% of patients who ingested lethal drugs took more than 6 hours to die, 26% took 1-6 hours to die and 67% took 1hr or less. The duration is not known for close to 1,000 patients. In 2021, no medic was present at the time of death in almost half of cases so it’s difficult to know how people spent their final hours.
Politicians and the wider public grapple closely with this issue and it is doubtless true that people on both sides of the debate are motivated by compassion. The real question is: what does compassion look like? Yes, people suffer during terminal illness. I have lost someone close to me to cancer and watched his terrible fight with the disease. However, ethical support can be brought in the form of palliative medicine, counselling and spiritual guidance, friendship, and mutual striving.
I reject the narrative that says we should pave the road to assisted suicide in the UK. This practice is not ethical, compassionate, or dignified. And it is not the kind of response to life’s hardships good societies embrace. Let’s ramp up suicide prevention, work towards better palliative care, fund medical research and have new conversations about improving the end of life. We need to turn away from the dark path of assisted suicide, because there’s a brighter one.
Jamie Gillies is a Scottish campaigner and journalist focusing on social policy