Pros and cons

The pros and cons of legalising assisted dying

Parliament to debate the divisive issue after more than 150,000 people sign petition for action

The House of Commons is due to debate assisted dying for the first time in two years today.

A public petition, which reached more than 150,000 signatures in six months, implored the government to bring forward legislation to allow assisted dying for adults who are terminally ill and have mental capacity, subject to strict safeguards including assessment by two independent doctors.

Supporters of legalising assisted dying “will be hoping to show that the balance of opinion in Parliament has tilted their way since the defeat of Rob Marris’s private member’s bill in 2015”, said the BBC’s parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy.

Assisted dying is a controversial issue for legislatures worldwide, with widely cited arguments both for and against a practice that is legal in some countries while totally taboo in others.

1

Pro: 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.

The latest research from the campaign group Dignity in Dying found that between 300 and 650 dying UK citizens take their own lives every year. A further 3,000 to 6,500 attempt to do so, according to October 2021 estimates. A further 50 Brits travel to Switzerland for assisted death each year on average. 

The authors of the report – titled “Last resort: the hidden truth about how dying people take their own lives in the UK” – argue that the law must change to allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults the option of an assisted death, subject to robust, upfront safeguards. 

Paul Lamb, a paralysed former builder from Leeds who died in June 2021, had lost his legal case to challenge UK laws on assisted dying. Calling for an urgent government inquiry on the issue in 2020, he 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.”

2

Con: losing legal protection

It is currently a criminal offence under the 1961 Suicide Act to help someone take their own life, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Some people 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 argued: “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 against legalised euthanasia said that the law is also in place to protect the vulnerable “from being pressured into ending their lives”.

A YouGov poll published in August 2021 found that 73% of Britons support allowing doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, including 74% of Conservative voters and 76% of Labour voters. But the polling company pointed out that the public’s view is not represented in Westminster, where just 35% of MPs think the law should be changed.

3

Pro: death with dignity

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

A 50-year-old Scottish woman suffering from terminal multiple sclerosis that had left her unable to take care of herself told The Telegraph in 2008 that such an existence was “torture”. “If I was Spooky, my cat, I’d have been put down long ago,” said Val McKay, from Perth.

McKay and other campaigners for euthanasia have argued that 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.

4

Con: ‘slippery slope’

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

This “slippery slope is real”, said James Mildred of Care (Christian Action Research and Education), which campaigns against assisted suicide. In a 2018 article in The Economist, Mildred cited “a steady increase year on year in the number of people being killed or helped to commit suicide by their doctors” in countries that have legalised assisted suicide. It was “only a matter of time” before the criteria for euthanasia was widened, he added.

But writing for iai news, Emily Jackson, a professor of law at LSE and a member of the British Medical Association (BMA)’s medical ethics committee, said that “slippery slope arguments are in fact often a smokescreen, invoked by people who are fundamentally opposed to legalisation, in order to appeal to people who are not, but who do have concerns about the possibility of abuse”.

5

Pro: shifting opinion

There has been a significant shift in recent years in professional medical opinion regarding assisted dying for people with a terminal illness. 

In June, the UK’s largest doctors’ union, the BMA, voted to reaffirm its neutral stance on assisted dying. The union had dropped its long-standing opposition to a change in the law on assisted dying following a debate at its Annual Representative Meeting last year. 

The Royal College of Nursing has adopted a neutral stance on the issue since 2009.

A number of other countries – including Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and Colombia, plus some states in Australia and the US – have changed or are due to change their laws in favour of assisted dying. In Scotland, Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur has launched a separate consultation on legalising assisted dying.

Campaigners claim UK police are also increasingly turning a blind eye to people travelling to other countries to end their life. 

6

Con: 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. In 2020, the Vatican reiterated the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia, describing them as “intrinsically evil” acts “in every situation or circumstance”, The New York Times reported. 

However, a 2019 survey of 5,000 people across England, Wales and Scotland revealed “broad support for assisted dying across most faith groups, including more than 82% support amongst Christians”, according to pollsters Yonder (then Populus).

More recently, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and rabbi Jonathan Romain wrote an article titled “There is nothing holy about agony”, in which they argued that nothing in the scripture directly prohibits assisting a death to end suffering.

“A massive change is going on in religious attitudes to assisted dying,” the pair said in the article, published in the British Medical Journal in September 2021.

7

Pro: ending ‘mercy killings’

It emerged in January that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is also considering revising its stance on so-called mercy killings so that defendants are less likely to face criminal charges.

“We are not decriminalising any offence,” Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill told the i news site, but in offences “born solely out of compassion”, justice can sometimes “be achieved by not prosecuting”.

The range of potential motives and circumstances required “more nuanced” guidance, he said. “At one end of that spectrum, these are cases of murder – when you take somebody else’s life, it may not be at the victim’s time of choosing and they may not have reached a point, even if they’re sick, of deciding that they want their life to end.

“But at the other end of the spectrum, nobody wants to see a devoted husband or wife charged and going to court.”

Prosecutions of such cases have previously had mixed results. 

As director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer gave the green light for a charge of attempted murder against Kay Gilderdale, whose daughter died in 2008 after she was left paralysed by myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Kay was cleared of the attempted murder charge in 2010.

In 2019, Mavis Eccleston, 80, was acquitted of the murder of her husband despite arguments from prosecutors that her husband – who was in the final stages of bowel cancer – was unaware that she had given him a potentially lethal overdose.

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