By Campaign Agent Sophie Savage
Assisted suicide or dying is the act of aiding another person in committing suicide. It is currently illegal in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), carrying a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment. In 2015 there was a failed attempt to pass an Assisted Dying Bill. Most recently, lawyer Richard Gordon QC has challenged the high court on the current illegality of assisted dying.
Euthanasia and Palliative Care Defined
Neither of these terms are the same as assisted suicide, yet they often come into the discussion.
Euthanasia is the act of purposefully ending a person’s life with the aim of taking away their suffering. Under current law, euthanasia is illegal and can be classed as murder or manslaughter depending on the individual case.
The distinction between euthanasia and assisted dying is that euthanasia involves direct involvement in taking a person’s life, whereas assisted dying is more indirect. For example, euthanasia would be administering the drugs which allow someone to die. Assisted dying would be providing the drugs for someone to take themselves.
Palliative care is care for those who are terminally ill carried out by healthcare professionals. The care given concerns pain-management, psychological aid and practical help. This practice is carried out across England and Wales.
Arguments for Making Assisted Dying Legal
Autonomy: No one should be denied the freedom to make their own decisions about their own body and life. If someone feels their illness or disability has diminished their quality of life to the point where they no longer want to live, then assisted dying should be a choice for them.
Religion: Opposition to assisted dying can come from a religious belief in the sanctity of life (the belief that life is sacred and created by God), see below for more information on this argument. It is unfair to stop someone who does not share this religious belief from partaking in a legalised version of assisted dying due to someone else’s beliefs.
Coercion: Safeguarding could be built into the law which legalised assisted dying that would protect vulnerable individuals from being pressured by family or others to choose assisted dying.
Already happening: Many are already using an organisation called Dignitas, in Switzerland, which allows assisted dying. Due to assisted suicide being illegal in England and Wales it means that people often must travel out to Switzerland and die earlier than they may feel they need to. Also, it prevents them from saying goodbye to all their family and friends for fear of implicating them legally in their assisted suicide.
Conscience clause: A clause could be included in the law that allowed doctors who object to assisted dying to not partake in it.
Against Making Assisted Dying Legal
Doctor-patient relationship: Legalising assisted dying would risk the trust and relationship between a doctor and their patient. A doctor’s purpose is to save a patient’s life, not to aid them in ending their life.
Palliative care: Assisted dying could be seen as a cheap alternative to palliative care. This could come either from government, who may then spend more on assisted dying than palliative care. Or this could cause the patient to feel that they are a burden and that it would be better in terms of money and time to choose assisted dying.
Religion: If religious, someone may argue that God gave life to humans and that it is not for us to decide when to take that life away. This argument is moral and religious.
Practicalities: Even if someone believes that people should be allowed to choose assisted suicide if they wish, the realities of making a law that allows this and safeguards vulnerable people and healthcare workers seems unrealistic. It raises the question of who should be allowed to die under this law: would it apply to people who are terminally ill and have a very short amount of time left (which the 2015 bill proposed), or people with severe disabilities, or those who suffer from dementia? Also, how do you ensure that someone has the right mental capacity to choose to die? Legalising assisted dying may then cause more harm than good if done incorrectly.
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