The right to die: the ultimate civil right?

15 August 2023 , categories: Ethics, Meetings, Newcastle

Does assisted suicide relieve suffering and give people ultimate control over their own life and death? Or is acceptance by the state of the premeditated killing of a human being always wrong? PiPs Newcastle met at The Telegraph pub to discuss legalisation of assisted dying.

The introductory talk was given by Kevin Yuill, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sunderland, CEO of Humanists against Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, and author of ‘Assisted Suicide: the Humanist Case Against Legalisation’.

In May 2021, Baroness Meacher introduced to the House of Lords a Private Member’s bill intended to legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life. The bill required two doctors and a High Court judge to be satisfied that the individual making the request is over 18, terminally ill with six months or less to live and fully mentally competent before they would be granted life-ending medication that could be taken at a time and place of their choosing. The bill passed its first and second readings with strong cross-party support, and only failed to become law due to running out of time to pass all the necessary stages before the parliamentary session ended.

Despite such legislation being defeated every time it has arisen in Parliament, it is likely to be introduced again in the future. Moreover, a bill is currently being considered in both the Irish and Scottish Parliaments. If the UK were to pass such a law, it would be joining a clutch of US and Australian states, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, Spain and New Zealand in allowing assisted death. Many see this as the ‘ultimate civil right’.

Kevin Yuill explained that he is strongly in favour of personal freedom and choice, and has no objection to an individual making their own decision to refuse medical treatment or food. His opposition is to the involvement of the state, the justice system and medical authorities in what should be a personal and private matter. He maintains that the focus, especially for medical professionals, should always be to preserve life.

Kevin clarified the difference between euthanasia (administered by a doctor) and assisted suicide (administered by the individual themselves). He vehemently opposes the legalisation of both euthanasia and assisted suicide for three main reasons:

It is not necessary. Campaigns for legalisation exploit our fear and emotions, giving the impression that assisted dying is the only way of preventing terrible pain at the end of life. Kevin acknowledged that there are ‘bad deaths’ but these are extremely rare. Even the campaign group Dignity in Dying admits that just over 1% of people in the UK suffer as they die. There are already effective palliative care pathways to ease suffering, and evidence shows that pain and other symptoms actually reduce as people get closer to death.

It is harmful where it has been implemented. Those arguing for a change in UK law insist that clear lines would be drawn to prevent abuse. This may sound reassuring, but Kevin gave an overview of developments in countries where assisted dying has been legal for some time. In Holland and Belgium, people have been euthanised for mental health issues, including autism and depression. Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying programme, introduced in 2016, was initially limited to adults whose death was ‘reasonably foreseeable’. It has since been extended to cover adults with serious (but not terminal) illness or disability, and is set to be extended in future to cover ‘mature minors’ and mentally ill people. Canadian doctors have already approved people for euthanasia on grounds of ‘hearing loss’, ‘fear of homelessness’ and ‘unbearable poverty’. In each country there have been cases of people being offered euthanasia despite having shown no inclination towards this – including members of the prison population.

It has wider negative impacts on society. Although there are many examples of ‘mission creep’ as outlined above, Kevin asserted that legalising assisted dying is not a slippery slope but a moral precipice. Routinely subjecting human life to a cost-benefit analysis cannot fail to impact how a society views and treats its sick, disabled and elderly people, nor to influence how these people view themselves. Many people experience suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives – legalising assisted suicide may send the message that it is perfectly acceptable to act on them. Legalisation would also affect the relationship between medical professionals and their patients, with euthanasia becoming normalised as the ultimate painkiller. Kevin pointed out that surveys of the medical profession consistently show that a clear majority oppose legalisation, and that spending on palliative care has reduced in countries where assisted dying has been legalised.

This led to an interesting debate. Most of those present had witnessed the deaths of family members and had personal as well as political or philosophical views on the subject. Some members felt strongly that assisted dying should be available to those in extreme pain at the very end of their lives. Kevin explained that pain was not among the main reasons given by people requesting assisted dying – these are: loss of control and independence, inability to engage in enjoyable activities, loss of dignity, loneliness and the sense of being a burden on others. These sound like the symptoms of old age, said Kevin, which is a natural part of life and should not be taken away. The group agreed that a wealthy society should be able to provide a better solution to loneliness than death.

Newcastle PiPs members tend to be strongly in favour of individual freedom, a trend which was evident in previous discussions on topics such as lockdowns, gambling and traffic restrictions. Campaigns for legalisation are based heavily on the appeal for bodily autonomy and compassion. It is no coincidence that it is the most ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ societies that have legalised assisted dying and euthanasia. However, Kevin asserted that legalising assisted suicide actually reduces individual autonomy by promoting the deaths of vulnerable people while eroding personal freedoms such as the right to refuse medical treatment.

It was a thought-provoking and at times sad discussion, as members recalled their own experiences of losing loved ones, but we finished on the positive note that despite well-funded and high-profile campaigns, the UK continues to resist calls to legalise assisted dying.

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