On July 18th, Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords, taking another step towards becoming law. I don’t doubt the good intentions of those who support the legalisation of physician-assisted suicide; by and large, the main concerns of the Falconer Bill’s proponents have been minimising suffering and upholding the dignity of the terminally ill, both of which are noble and important aims. But the legalisation of assisted suicide would not only undermine the well-being of those it purports to serve – the sick, weak, and vulnerable– but also represents a dangerous and fundamental overhaul of the way we approach death as a society.
Some slopes really are slippery. In some countries, the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia has led to mass deaths
Many have cited the importance of autonomy as a major point in favour of assisted suicide. But the legalisation of physician-assisted suicide goes beyond the preservation of autonomy; it is a threat to public safety. The Falconer Bill, and other bills like it, make respect for the lives of the sick contingent on their desire to live, putting those who are unsupported, despairing, or under pressure to end their lives at great risk. As Baroness Campbell, a disabled peer, put it: “the Bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because, in periods of greatest difficulty, I know that I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges which life holds for me”. In Oregon, a study found that one in four of those asking for assisted suicide had undiagnosed clinical depression. As Disability Rights UK and Scope have argued, physician-assisted suicide does not empower the weak, but rather encourages them to doubt their own worth.
And as neither the gravity of suffering nor the value of life can be objectively or scientifically quantified, legalising physician-assisted suicide would open the door to a vast spectrum of arbitrary judgments as to when and whether a life is worth continuing. This is evident in the Falconer Bill itself; why is it that a six-month prognosis is the cutoff? If the terminally ill can be assisted in committing suicide, why not make the same allowance for those suffering from progressive or chronic illnesses? How long before the provisions of physician-assisted suicide extend to those suffering from mental illness or those with disabilities? These questions are not rhetorical; the Falconer Bill puts them on the table in a very immediate way. Some slopes really are slippery, as can be seen in the Netherlands, Belgium, and other countries in which assisted suicide is legal. Far from being a safe and specified change in the law, the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia has led to mass deaths. 1 in 32 deaths in the Netherlands is now from euthanasia, and nearly half of Belgian euthanasia nurses have admitted to ending a patient’s life without consent. Professor Theo Boer, a Dutch euthanasia expert who formerly argued in favour of physician-assisted suicide, recently urged members of Parliament not to legalise it; “we were wrong – terribly wrong, in fact… I used to be a supporter of the Dutch law. But now, with twelve years of experience, I have a very different view”.
The defining purpose of medical care is to aid, improve, and protect human life: medicine aims at health, not at death.
Indeed, many of the most compelling arguments against physician-assisted suicide come from those who have firsthand knowledge of the struggles faced by terminally ill patients; namely, their doctors. The British Medical Association “opposes all forms of assisted dying”, arguing that the legalisation of assisted suicide could put the vulnerable at risk and would mean a major change in the character of medicine. The Royal College of GPs agrees. The defining purpose of medical care is to aid, improve, and protect human life: medicine aims at health, not at death. Including the prescription of lethal drugs – or, poison – in our understanding of medical care is a radical shift in the purpose and nature of that care. By the same token, one has to ask what a trusting doctor-patient relationship looks like when it’s not built on a shared understanding that the goal is the patient’s health. Where health cannot be attained – as in the case of the terminally ill – it has always been understood that the best treatment is palliative care, which aims to ease the patient’s suffering while protecting his or her life. Moreover, medical knowledge is imperfect; a six-month prognosis is closer to a guess than to a guarantee. Terminal diagnoses are not always correct, let alone the time limits predicted in them.
Physician-assisted suicide does not empower the weak, but rather encourages them to doubt their own worth.
The current law is safe, while showing compassion in specific cases. Despite its good intentions, the Falconer Bill jeopardises the vulnerable, undermines the constructive ethos of medicine, and endangers public safety. As Baroness Butler-Sloss puts it, “The law is there to protect us all. We tinker with it at our peril.”
Molly Gurdon is a third year undergraduate reading Philosophy and Spanish at Christ Church. She is the outgoing President of Oxford Students for Life.
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