In Depth

The pros and cons of legalising assisted dying

Is physician-assisted suicide murder or mercy?

Former leading brain surgeon Henry Marsh has joined calls for an inquiry into assisted dying.

The retired neurosurgeon and bestselling author, who has advanced prostate cancer, has said a review of the issue is “absolutely essential”.

He is supporting a group of more than 50 politicians who have written to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, saying that the UK’s laws on euthanasia have fallen behind other countries.

“It is extraordinarily difficult to think about your own death,” he told the BBC. “My own suspicion as to why the opponents to assisted dying oppose a public inquiry is they fear that actually the evidence is so strong that their hypothetical arguments against it don’t hold water, that they will lose the debate.”

Euthanasia is a controversial topic for legislatures around the world. Legal and normalised in some countries while totally taboo in others, it remains one of the key ethical debates at the juncture where politics meets philosophy.

Many believe that allowing a person who is terminally ill and in pain to pass away at their own will is morally right, but those opposed to the practice on religious, moral, and ethical grounds argue that nature must be allowed to take its course.

Here are some of the main arguments for and against legalising euthanasia:

Pros

An end to suffering

Allowing patients to end their suffering is not only morally justified but also essential to upholding the right to personal and bodily autonomy, advocates argue.

Paul Lamb, a paralysed former builder from Leeds, who lost a legal case to challenge the law last year, told the BBC: “I now have no choice if my pain ever becomes unbearable, other than the horrifying prospect I was most afraid of from the start - slowly starving myself to death.

“I cannot understand, in a civilised society like ours, why I should be forced to suffer when millions of people around the world already have the choice I asked for.”

Death with dignity

People in the late stage of terminal illness often end up bedridden and reliant on nurses and relatives for simple tasks such as eating, bathing and going to the toilet, which can be degrading.

Back in 2008, a woman suffering from terminal multiple sclerosis that had left her unable to take care of herself told The Daily Telegraph that such an existence was “torture”.

“If I was Spooky, my cat, I’d have been put down long ago,” she said.

Giving dying people the opportunity to choose when and how they die allows them to take control of their life and how they are remembered by their loved ones.

Shifting opinion

The MPs calling for an inquiry into euthanasia say there has been a “significant shift in professional medical opinion” on the issue. They cite a British Medical Association survey that found that half of doctors personally support assisted dying, while 39% were opposed.

They say that other countries including Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, some US states and Australia have changed or are due to change their laws in favour of assisted dying since the UK parliament last considered the issue half a decade ago.

Police are also increasingly turning a blind eye to people taking journeys to end their life in other countries, “raising serious questions about the effectiveness of our current laws in preventing the potential coercion of vulnerable people”, they say.

Cons

Abuse of law

Many believe that legalising euthanasia would put too much power in the hands of doctors, who could abuse their position.

Rita Marker, executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in the US, has previously said: “Laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide are in place to prevent abuse and to protect people from unscrupulous doctors and others. They are not, and never have been, intended to make anyone suffer.

“Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not about the right to die. They are about the right to kill.”

The UK’s Care Not Killing alliance, which opposes euthanasia, says the law is also in place to protect the vulnerable “from being pressured into ending their lives”.

‘Slippery slope’

Opponents also argue that normalising euthanasia would be a philosophical slippery slope to legalised murder.

Edmund Pellegrino, a professor emeritus of medicine and medical ethics at Washington DC-based Georgetown University, says that “in a society as obsessed with the costs of healthcare and the principle of utility, the dangers of the slippery slope are far from fantasy”.

He continues: “If terminating life is a benefit, the reasoning goes, why should euthanasia be limited only to those who can give consent? Why need we ask for consent?”

Religious concerns

Many religious people, especially Catholics, believe that life is the ultimate gift and that taking that away is usurping power that belongs to God only. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops  opposes euthanasia on the grounds that life is “a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion”.

The Catholic tradition “clearly and strongly affirms that as a responsible steward of life one must never directly intend to cause one’s own death, or the death of an innocent victim, by action or omission”, the assembly concludes.

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