Newspapers have been discussing the assisted suicide of Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper. This event, in which one of the soap’s most loved characters died peacefully and with dignity, was treated in a sympathetic manner and will doubtless increase the calls for assisted suicide to be legalised. At present polls show the majority of Britons would like to see a change in the law permitting assisted suicide.
Arguments against assisted suicide
1.‘Thou shalt not kill’ is one of the oldest moral commands. It has been a key part of medical ethics for centuries. The original Hippocratic oath states ‘I will give no deadly medicines to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.’ Many religious people contend that only God has the right to give or take life.
2. Those that are infirm may be pressurised to die or made to feel selfish or a burden if there was this option.
3 Slippery slope arguments. The ‘slippery slope’ argument holds that if assisted suicide was practised for people like Mr Nicklinson then it would become acceptable to allow it for less clear cut cases and eventually you may end up with a situation as in Nazi Germany where those deemed to be defective were killed.
4. With good pain control and counselling, suffering will be minimised.
Arguments for assisted suicide:
1. The person’s right to autonomy, control over his or her life. According to polls most people in the UK feel that they should be able to have some control over when and how they die. In many philosophical traditions ‘egoistical suicide’ [death for one’s own reasons such as to avoid pain] is considered selfish and wrong. However the aim of ‘altruistic suicide’ which is carried out for the love of others or for the religion [eg Jesus praises a man who lays down his life for others [John 15;13] ] is more acceptable to most religions. It can be argued that someone who wishes to die in order not to be a burden is following the same principles.
2. Some, such as Debbie Purdy who has multiple sclerosis, have argued that if her husband faced prosecution for helping her to commit suicide she would travel to Dignitas earlier while she could do so alone. However if the law permitted her to have help she would delay dying.
3. Even with the best palliative care [treatment of the dying] suffering and pain are common. Dr Ann McPherson, who set up the charity and website ‘Teenage Health Freak’ and supported a change in the law on assisted dying, died recently from pancreatic cancer. Her daughter wrote in the BMJ ‘our mum died slowly and in pain. …The law needs to change to allow terminally ill but mentally competent people the right to a more dignified death than my mum’.
The BMA [British Medical Association] has consistently opposed physician assisted suicide however Clare Gerada, the leader of the Royal College of General Practitioner’s has recently argued that doctors should adopt a neutral stance. A poll in May2013 showed that about 75% of the general public support physician assisted suicide[You.gov poll May 2013]
Active euthanasia is when death is brought about by an act – for example when a person is killed by being given an overdose of pain-killers.
Passive euthanasia is when death is brought about by an omission – i.e. when someone lets the person die. This can be by withdrawing or withholding treatment. Eg stopping a ventilator.
Active euthanasia is illegal while passive euthanasia is legal. ‘Thou shalt not kill but need’st not strive officiously to keep alive.’ [Arthur Clough 1850’]. It has been argued that often the moral difference between acts and omissions is tiny. The Catholic Church for example sees no difference between the two – ‘The act or omission which, of it self or by intention causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder.’ [Catechism of the Catholic Church p491] NB In common parlance euthanasia is often used to mean active euthanasia.
Lord Falconer is due to make Assisted Suicide the subject of a private members bill in the House of Lords later in 2014 and make it legal for those with less than six months to live. Assisted suicide is rarely out of the news.