Should Assisted Suicide Be Legalized?

By Purdy, Debbie; Finlay, Ilora | New Internationalist, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Should Assisted Suicide Be Legalized?


Purdy, Debbie, Finlay, Ilora, New Internationalist


Right-to-die campaigner DEBBIE PURDY and palliative medicine professor ILORA FINLAY go head-to-head.

Debbie

The current situation in Britain, that forbids assisted dying yet permits it if the act is motivated by love and compassion without providing safeguards and opportunity for full discussion on the issue, is surely not the best we can come up with.

I agree with your letter in The Times last summer that palliative care is not a blanket panacea, and therefore believe that we must be prepared to open up a discussion about what we expect and want at the end of life.

This is especially true given that the current situation is leading to early assisted deaths abroad and people living their final months full of suffering and extreme desperation due to a lack of choice.

A properly considered law with safeguards would enable doctors, social workers, families and even the clergy better to support the patient, and ensure they have considered every alternative.

I see it as I do voting: I despise people who put their cross next to the BNP but I wholeheartedly defend their right to do so. We don't have to agree with the choices people make, but if we don't like their choices our duty is to ensure that the alternatives are appealing. We should not prohibit choices just because we wouldn't make them.

Llora

It's not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with the choices that people express. I fully understand the argument that there could be highly exceptional circumstances where it might be acceptable to accede to a request to hasten someone's death. But I would not legalize such acts any more than I would legalize other potentially understandable breaches of the law that might be committed in extreme circumstances - such as stealing food for your hungry child.

Legalization produces normalization. Look at the US State of Oregon. Since physicianassisted suicide (PAS) was legalized in 1997, such deaths have quadrupled. Oregon's current PAS death rate would produce more than 1,000 assisted suicides in England and Wales every year. Yet with our law as it stands, fewer than 20 cases of assisted suicide cross the desk of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) each year.

It's easy to talk of choices, but decisions need accurate information, correctly understood. Safeguards for 'assisted dying' can help, but only if they provide a challenging process to screen out less-than-serious applicants. The safeguards so far proposed seem to be designed primarily to facilitate 'assisted dying' for a small minority of highly determined and strong-minded people rather than protect the vulnerable - from themselves and from others. Don't forget that the law exists first and foremost to protect the weak and the vulnerable. It manages to do that while dealing sensitively with cases where genuinely compassionate circumstances have been present.

Debbie

I'm glad you see some circumstances that would render assistance to die acceptable. How can society find solutions or even alternatives if it doesn't talk about the situation? Surely a full, frank and honest discussion is needed to explore people's needs in the 21st century.

The '20 cases that cross the DPP's desk' are, as you know, all patients who have travelled to Switzerland, but many don't. Each year in Britain hundreds of people attempt suicide because they cannot cope with the pain or indignity of a medical condition. Some succeed, others result in further problems. Either way, I don't believe this is a situation that people are prepared to brush under the carpet, much as parents being forced to steal to feed their children was one of the building bricks of our union movement and later the welfare state.

Your suggestion that PAS deaths in Oregon have increased uncontrollably is misleading. The Death with Dignity Law was passed in 1997. Ten years later, in 2007, 85 people received the medication to end their lives, 49 used it. …

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