There is no doubt that euthanasia is a difficult debate, with passionate views both for and against it. Assisted suicide has been legal in Oregon since 1997, and assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legal in the Netherlands since 2002- so why, in 2017, is no form of assisted suicide or euthanasia legal in the UK?
First, what is euthanasia? Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering. Meanwhile, assisted suicide is the act of deliberately assisting or encouraging another person to kill themselves.
Euthanasia can be defined as active or passive and voluntary, non-voluntary or involuntary. Active euthanasia is when a person directly ends someone’s life, for example giving a person a lethal injection. Passive euthanasia is when a person causes death by withholding or withdrawing treatment which is necessary to maintain life, for example taking a person off a life-support machine.
Voluntary euthanasia is when a person wants to die and involuntary euthanasia is when a person is killed against their express wishes. Non-voluntary euthanasia is when a person is unable to give consent so another person makes the decision on their behalf, for example if a person is in a coma.
Under English law, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder and is punishable with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Assisted suicide is also illegal and punishable with up to 14 years imprisonment.
Active euthanasia is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Colombia. Assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and Switzerland.
One of the few doctors in Britain charged with attempted murder was Dr Nigel Cox in 1992. He injected his patient of 13 years, Lillian Boyes (70 years old) who had rheumatoid arthritis, with potassium chloride in order to stop her heart. She was said to have pleaded with him to end her life and during the court case, Ms Boyes’ family never wavered in their support of the doctor’s actions. Dr Cox was charged with attempted murder because it couldn’t be proved that the injection itself killed her and he was given a 12-month suspended sentence.
The principle of autonomy can be used to argue for the legalisation of euthanasia. In medicine, autonomy is the right of competent adults to make informed decisions about their own medical care. This means that patients have the right to refuse medical treatments and to decide what happens to their body after they die (for example, donating organs). It could then be argued that patients should also have the right to die, and that making euthanasia illegal does not allow for complete patient autonomy.
This must be weighed against beneficence. Doctors are meant to ‘do no harm’ and do what’s in the best interest of the patient. Therefore, it is questionable whether or not ending a patient’s life is breaking a doctor’s code of conduct. However, one could argue that as long as the patient understands every facet of the decision at hand and would still like to end their life, then it is a doctor’s duty to help them do so. As well as beneficence, there is fear that the legalisation of euthanasia could damage the doctor-patient relationship. Patients could begin to lose trust in their doctors, and believe that the doctor does not have the patient’s best interest at heart but instead just want to ‘get rid of them’.
The law against euthanasia can be unfair, as it does not allow those wanting to end their lives to do so in a safe and peaceful manner. Without an assisted dying or euthanasia law people try to commit suicide in private, ending their lives at home and alone as they cannot talk to their family or doctor about the decision. People should not be forced into such circumstances, and should be able to say a proper goodbye and be with loved ones if they still make the decision to die.
Also, people may instead decide to travel abroad to die (e.g: Dignitas in Switzerland) because they cannot die how they want to in the UK. A trip like this can cost up to £10, 000 and people are often in pain, so travelling may put them in distress. Furthermore, a person wanting to die may journey abroad sooner than is necessary as they fear that if they stay in the UK, they will miss their chance to leave by becoming too ill to travel.
Many people believe that the government should not be able to intervene in personal matters like death. In the past and even currently, should the government introduce a policy for vaccination it is met with a flood of opposition and yet the government can make assisted dying illegal? It is a fair argument to say that the state should not create laws that prevent people from being able to choose when or how they die, as that is not the purpose of the government.
Despite that, the government do have a duty to protect those who are vulnerable such as the ill, elderly and disabled from feeling pressured into ending their lives and being exploited. In 2015, MPs rejected the legalisation of assisted dying in England and Wales with 330 votes against and 118 in favour- this shows that clearly the government is nowhere near legalising assisted suicide or euthanasia with such an overwhelming majority voting against it.
A sizeable proportion of those opposing euthanasia argue on religious grounds; human life is sacred and only God has the right to take life away. Some go as far as to say that the pain terminally ill people may experience in death is just another test set by God, similar to some of the reasoning behind refusal of chloroform use during childbirth when it was first discovered in Victorian times.
However, not all religious people do oppose euthanasia. In the above mentioned rejected bill a Rabbi said, “We are saddened that it failed to progress, as it dashes the hopes of those who wish to avoid ending their days in pain or incapacity”. Like with many other things in religion, opinions of euthanasia is dependent on personal understanding and observance of religious teachings thus can vary from person to person.
Religious and atheist people alike argue that euthanasia devalues life in society’s eyes, making it easier to end lives and accepting that some lives are worth less than others. This is one of the more potent arguments against euthanasia, as it links to the ever prevalent ‘slippery slope’ issue. The concern that legalising voluntary euthanasia might lead to allowing non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia is at the forefront of most people’s mind when discussing euthanasia, and with good reason.
Nevertheless, the very fact that people are so apprehensive of the ‘slippery slope’ means that if euthanasia or assisted suicide was legalised, people would be vigilant and safeguarding would be put into effect to ensure no one was pressured into ending their lives and that any euthanasia carried out was definitely voluntary. What’s more, Oregon is a working model and proof that the slippery slope is not inevitable. Assisted suicide for the terminally ill has been legal for almost 20 years in Oregon and there have been absolutely no cases of abuse reported. The UK would not be the first to legalise euthanasia and we could use the methods in places like Oregon and the Netherlands as a template for our own laws.
Likewise, another case made against euthanasia is that it could lead to a lack of compassion in doctors as they become used to ending lives although I think this is unlikely as such fears are voiced about abortion yet it has not happened in the 50 years that abortion has been legalised.
The final and perhaps simplest argument against legalising euthanasia: with modern medical care and pain relief, there is no reason that in the right environment a person can’t have a dignified and painless death. So is legalisation of euthanasia or assisted suicide really necessary?
Sadly, not all people would agree. Quality of life is very subjective and impossible to truly measure, so we cannot decide for other people whether they’re life is worth living or not. Despite the alternatives to ending one’s life, such as palliative care, if a person believes their pain is too great for them to bear then no matter how great the alternatives are, euthanasia should be available to them should they request it as it is almost cruel to force people to live and adds to their pain.
In conclusion, euthanasia is possibly one of the toughest and most serious medical ethics debate but it is important to think and form opinions about it. The 2015 vote was the first ever serious attempt to change Britain’s assisted suicide laws in the House of Commons in at least 20 years, but that was only the beginning. Currently, a man with Motor Neuron Disease (Noel Conway) is seeking a judicial review of the Suicide Act of 1961 and other countries have increasingly been changing their laws to support assisted suicide and even euthanasia in the last 10 years.
I think, on balance, that I would support a change to the law regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia. Whether or not I agree with euthanasia is besides the point because for me, I see this as a choice issue and I believe people should be given that choice as it is not fair that the law forces the opinions of those opposed to euthanasia on those in need. That said, if it ever is legalised in the UK, the law must support and protect both those who wish to end their lives and those who do not to ensure that there is no abuse at the same time as providing mercy to those who ask.
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