Can Assisted Suicide be Right?

Yesterday 2 men found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 were sentenced at the Old Bailey, London to 'life' imprisonment. This was possible because UK law enshrines the principle of respect for human life and the 6th commandment "You shall no commit murder".

I am thankful that I live in a country that attempts to uphold such principles. I do not want to live in a country where the law attempts to distinguish between those whose lives are considered worth living and those whose lived should be ended, where a so-called 'right to die' could become a 'duty to die' or a duty to assist someone else to commit suicide.

I am totally opposed to any proposal to change the law in order to make assisted suicide legal, however carefully the legally parameters might be constructed. I see assisted suicide as murder, however compassionate the motives may be. I believe life to be a gift of God and it it not our prerogative to terminate that gift prematurely.

Having said that, I am only too well aware that life can become unbearable for some. The compassionate response to that should be to do everything possible (short of intentional murder) to relieve suffering, commit more resources to things like improved palliative care for the dying, better mental health provision. I do not want medical staff whose primary ethos is to save life, to be the people who could be required to provide drugs specifically in order to help their patients kill themselves.

I'm disappointed in the BBC whose headline today "Assisted Suicide: Strong Case for Legalisation" is rather misleading about the report of the Commission for Assisted Dying. The BBC's opening sentence refers to "a panel of experts", but this panel consisted of people in favour of a law-change, included no BMA representatives and is said to have been part-funded by Terry Pratchett and Dignity in Dying. So there is no way this is an impartial independent review into this very serious matter.

2 years ago, in March 2009 the Church of England produced a paper 'Assisted Dying/Suicide and Voluntary Euthanasia' which is definitely worth a read and I support the arguments against put forward there. That position has been briefly restated today by a statement from the Bishop of Carlisle, written in response to the report of the Commission for Assisted Dying.

This is a highly complex matter and I haven't done justice to it here, so over to you. What do you think?


  1. I have mixed views on this one but I really don't see assisted suicide as murder (unless someone were to be coerced into it, which is a possible danger I suppose.) Murder, to me, is the premeditated and callous taking of another life without the consent of the person whose life you take. Assisted suicide does not fall into that category and the motives of those who support it are, I believe, generally compassionate and arise from a belief that to offer people this option enhances human dignity. I would not be able to call such people "murderers", even if I disagreed with their reasoning. Indeed, I know people who support the right to die - often as a result of witnessing the suffering of loved ones- and they are not "murderous" people. Fortunately, I have never had personal experience of the kind of degenerative diseases that lead people, like Pratchett, to advocate the right to die. I support palliative care over assisted dying - but then have to confess my ignorance as to whether palliative care can offer people a relatively dignified and, in terms of physical pain, a manageable end. I am reluctant to speak out strongly on issues, such as this one, when I am in many ways ignorant and have not been personally affected. I can also safely say that I sincerely hope I remain untouched by an issue so fraught with pain and anguish for all my days and I hesitate to judge those who have not been so fortunate.

  2. The legal definition of 'murder'in England and Wales is here
    From my reading of this, the 'intent to murder' is the intention to cause death and for it to be murder it must be premeditated. Illegal 'assisted suicide' falls within this I think. Having said that I do agree that generally those who support assisted suicide do so from compassionate motives. I have had personal experience of someone dying a slow painful death and is agony for those closest as well as the dying person. In the late stages of a terminal illness I am in favour of a doctor giving as much pain relief as is needed, even in some cases knowing that a secondary effect might be to hasten a death. This is not the same as adminstering the drug with the intention of killing them - (I think of Dr Shipman). I do think that compassion should be shown by judges in dealing with those who have deliberately helped a dying relative to hasten their end. In fact they seem to do so at present. A key problem with changing the law so assisting someone to commit suicide ceases to be a crime is the effect on the whole society. This isn't just about individual choice, such a change would affect everyone.

    Article above is interesting. Assisted suicide is illegal and so technically murder, although it is generally treated more leniently and I believe many who assist loved ones in dying face no prison term. As it says in this article, "this leaves the law in a highly unsatisfactory state." I do not believe I could easily judge someone who assisted in a terminally loved one's suicide as a "murderer"- that may be the law's judgement(although not reflected in its punishment?) but it is not mine personally. Surely it is untrue to say that , if we changed the law, then assisting someone to commit suicide would cease completely to be a crime? Surely it would be possible to say that assisted suicide under strictly controlled circumstances (signed consent, signatures of two doctors prepared to testify to a terminal condition, administration of drugs under medical supervision, proof that an individual had received appropriate counselling) would be legal, but not, for example, holding a pillow over your spouse's face and waving a suicide note at the police! In a way, it might make it harder for people to claim a "mercy killing" in dubious circumstances - not that I think this happens so very often anyway, to the best of my knowledge. In what way would changing the law in this way "affect everyone" or have an effect on the whole society?

  4. Suem, I think changing the law in way proposed would affect society in several ways. It would undermine the important principle of protection of life and the presumption that where this conflicts with personal autonomy then protection of life takes priority, so for example I hope anyone discovering me unconscious with a suicide note in my hand would call 999. It would change the relationship between medical staff and patients, if euthanasia became seen as a legal option among other treatments. It would undermine the relationship of trust between doctors/nurses and patients. It would commit resources to ensuring safeguards e.g. counselling are in place, so potentially remove resources from e.g. palliative care. It would potentially put pressure on the most vulnerable or anyone who feels they have become a burden to others. Human rights are based on the fundamental idea of a 'right to life'. What would happen if a 'right to die' were to be introduced in the form of euthanasia? Especially a right to assist another to die? Would the law be interpreted in varying ways and over time become more elastic - i.e. a slippery slope in a direction which at its most extreme ends in mass genocide of the weakest, those society values least? One thinks of the Holocaust. Could say more - no time now. What do others think?

  5. See, I can't believe that the introduction of assisted dying could lead to "mass genocide" or to a new Holocaust. Such horrific events arise out of very different sort of social or political situations, such as we saw in Nazi Germany and, when such ideologies take hold, atrocity is going to occur regardless. When I hear arguments saying it will lead to a holocaust, I feel that those making the case have lost all sense to evaluate the issue rationally and proportionately.

    I can't see that any of the consequences you outline above would automatically occur if assisted dying was made legal in very stringent circumstances. I can see that some of them might be a potential risk - for example that people who feel they are a burden to others might feel pressurised - but then those who truly feel that way might at this current time feel tempted to take their lives themselves, or could still be (theoretically) pressurised by relatives to do so - although I have to say I think it would be in rare instances with or without a new law.

    By the way, I am generally against assisted dying, but that doesn't stop me seeing the validity of the arguments for it, or seeing the paucity of some of the arguments that are offered against it.

  6. I actually have no experience of this issue in my life (I did watch my father die while waiting for a transplant, but he never asked to end his life and I would have said his care left him in a position to cope with the pain- although it was traumatic at times.)I did have a friend - who is a priest- who changed his mind about euthanasia after watching his father die in great agony. His father was in a hospice and yet palliative care was not sufficient to prevent him dying in extreme agony (or so my friend said.) This was 20 years ago- I don't know if things have changed. I would be easier about being very firmly decided against assisted dying if I felt that palliative care was always adequate to ameliorate suffering sufficiently and bearably. But is it?

  7. Suem - I admit the slippery slope argument is weak, but I still think it's worth considering. I think the important underlying question is what sort of society to we want to build? One that values all life and protects the most vulnerable? One that values freedom while not exalting individual choice above more important concerns e.g. well-being of others?

  8. Sure, the question of the sort of society we want is always crucial. But there is an argument to say that those who support AD are "valuing life" (the value of life does not just lie in its length) that they do "protect the vulnerable" (those who may face huge and needless pain are vulnerable) and that it is perfectly possible to exercise freedom of choice in your own life and death without that being an "exaltation about the well being of others" (because the well being of each individual is important.) I am not sure these are compelling arguments on one side any more than the other?


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