By Sam Lake
Last month, a law was passed in Austria allowing those who meet certain criteria to request assisted suicide. The law, which has just come into effect, makes Austria the latest in a small but growing group of states to legalise the practice. Eligibility criteria within each jurisdiction differ, as does the legality of the different forms of assisted dying.
In Switzerland, for example, euthanasia (the taking of a patient’s life by someone other than the patient) is illegal, whilst assisted suicide (helping a patient to take their own life) is legal, whereas in the Netherlands both forms of assisted dying are sanctioned. Furthermore, in the Swiss case, there are no strict eligibility criteria for assisted suicide and no minimum age. In the Netherlands, there is a minimum age of 12 and the applicant must be in a state of “unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement” in order to be deemed eligible. ‘Assisted dying’ is a blanket term, and one that allows for significant diversity in its implementation. When assisted dying is discussed by UK lawmakers, however, these distinctions are often forgotten. Assisted suicide is instead, wrongly, seen by its opponents as a slippery slope towards involuntary euthanasia.
What is more, those in power do not seem to take much notice of public opinion: around 82% of the British public support assisted suicide as an option for the terminally ill. By denying it the Government is forcing citizens of this country to continue lives of torment and indignity.
Noel Conway was one of those citizens. Mr Conway suffered from motor neurone disease, which by the end of his life meant that he had movement in only his head, neck, and right hand. In 2018, he had brought a legal challenge to the Supreme Court against the current legislation on assisted dying, arguing for his right to die. Predictably, his appeal was quashed. Mr Conway was well aware of what he wanted, and he was under pressure from no one. All he asked for was the option of a death other than the only one available to him – the removal of his ventilator, which would, in his own words, cause him to “effectively suffocate to death under sedation,”. In June of last year, Noel Conway died by those very means. As he tells us in his final statement before death, it was not something he “would have chosen.”
What gives the UK Government and medical professionals a right to tell people like Mr Conway that they can’t choose? By refusing to help those who wish to pass away peacefully and with dignity, by keeping them alive against their wishes, they are actively inflicting suffering and torment, something surely antithetical to the practice of any physician. Furthermore, constructing such barriers does not prevent people from seeking death. In 2014, 7% of suicides in the UK were by the terminally ill. If we do not help people who have no hope of recovery to end their lives, it is clear that many will take matters into their own hands, often in ways that run the risk of more pain and suffering not only for themselves, but for the loved ones who have to help them.
All this in a country, we must remember, that allows screening to determine whether a child is likely to be born with Down’s syndrome. It is hard to support many of the ethical arguments put forward against the legalisation of assisted dying when we permit the abortion of the birth of Down’s syndrome children after the usual 24-week cut-off point to prevent them living a life in which they would be “seriously handicapped”, as per the Abortion Act of 1967.
Such incoherent policy highlights the moral confusion of a medical establishment that encourages the elimination of characteristics in the population they deem undesirable, decisions over which those who are to be born with those characteristics have no influence whatsoever, but brands as unethical the idea that those with terminal illness – a serious handicap if ever there were one – should be able to choose when they die.
Assisted dying is not immoral, nor is it a slippery slope towards involuntary euthanasia. It is a humane and sensible means of ensuring that people have access to a dignified end-of-life. Death is not a dark spectre haunting the horizon, and it can provide a peaceful alternative to years of suffering. If people seek an end to that suffering, we have a moral duty to help them find it.
Image: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash