I have recently been published in a head to head with Sir Terence English in the Oxford Mail on whether assisted suicide should be legalised in Britain. My contribution to the debate is reproduced below. Perhaps not surprisingly I have said ‘no’.
Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia would inevitably place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others.
The ‘right to die’ would so easily become the ‘duty to die’. This would especially affect people who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed and would be greatly accentuated at this time of economic recession with families and health budgets under pressure.
Elder abuse and neglect by families, carers and institutions are already real and dangerous and would be made worse.
Any so-called ‘safeguards’ against abuse, such as limiting it to certain categories of people, will not work.
This is because exactly the same arguments – autonomy and compassion – would apply to people outside the categories decided upon and so any law allowing it for some would immediately be challenged under equality legislation.
If for terminally ill people, why not for those who have chronic illnesses but are ‘suffering unbearably’?
If for adults why not for ‘Gillick competent’ children? If for the mentally competent why not for people with dementia who ‘would have wanted it’?
The news coming from other jurisdictions which have gone down this route, particularly Belgium and the Netherlands, shows a pattern of incremental extension and pushing of the boundaries – an increase in cases year on year, a widening of categories of people to be included and people being killed without their consent.
Belgium has recently legalised euthanasia for children and in the Netherlands babies with spina bifida and people with dementia are already put to death.
This is why British parliaments have rightly rejected the legalisation of assisted suicide in Britain three times in the last seven years and why the vast majority of UK doctors, almost all medical groups including the British Medication Association (BMA), Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), and all major disabled people’s advocacy groups are also opposed.
Persistent requests for euthanasia are extremely rare if people are properly cared for, so our real priority must be to ensure that good care addressing people’s physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs is accessible to all.
This issue is understandably an emotive one but hard cases make bad law and even in a free democratic society there are limits to human freedom. Our present law with its blanket prohibition on all medical killing does not need changing.
The penalties it holds in reserve act as a strong deterrent to exploitation and abuse whilst giving discretion to prosecutors and judges to temper justice with mercy.
DR Peter Saunders is a retired surgeon and campaign director of the Care Not Killing Alliance, representing 40 organisations opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia: