There are currently multiple attempts to introduce assisted suicide in different parts of the UK. Here are 10 things you need to know about assisted suicide:
1. ‘Assisted Dying’ and ‘Assisted Suicide’ are contested terms
Although pro-assisted suicide campaigning groups like to use the term ‘Assisted Dying’, this is not a term that has any status in law, and is a euphemism used to refer to the supply of lethal drugs to people so that the recipients might end their own lives. To do this is prohibited under Section 2 of the 1961 Suicide Act and is a criminal offence. We and others believe the appropriate term is assisted suicide, as this describes what is actually occurring, the wilful act of ending your life prematurely.
2. Assisted Suicide does not mean the withdrawing of treatment
57% of people in the UK do not actually know what assisted suicide is. Although many people believe that assisted suicide refers to doctors withholding treatment, and reaching a natural but more accelerated end, this is not the case: this is already legal and is a common part of end-of-life palliative care, and every patient (as long as they are deemed mentally capable) is also entitled to refuse medical treatment. Assisted suicide refers to the giving of lethal drugs to actively end life, not to letting a disease take its natural course.
3. Regularly cited polls ask misleading questions
It is regularly said that public opinion is in favour of introducing assisted suicide, with a 2015 poll organised by Dignity in Dying finding that 82% of the public were in favour. These polls are often worded in such a way as to guide respondents to a particular answer, citing ‘unbearable’ suffering and vaguely defined safeguards. A different poll found that after people heard the main arguments against assisted suicide, support dropped from 73% to 43%.
4. Safeguards haven’t remained in tact in other countries
Although every global proposal to introduce legislation includes safeguards, there is scepticism about whether it is just a stepping stone to broader legislation. Legislation has been widened in Belgium and the Netherlands to include euthanasia of children. In Canada, legislation is being considered which would include children within only 5 years and there are plans to expand it to include those with mental illness. In Oregon expansion of the law now permits those with anorexia to seek an assisted death. In Belgium, people have been euthanised due to depression, blindness, anorexia and gender dysphoria.
5. Doctors are not able to confidently determine when someone will die
Although doctors are capable of predicting when someone will die in the final few hours or even days of their life, when the prognosis is for six months of living (as it would have to be under the typically-proposed safeguards), the margin of error can be years. The Royal College of Physicians described it to the Mackay Committee (who were hearing evidence around Assisted Suicide legislation in 2004/05) as follows: “when they are six or eight months away from [dying], it is actually pretty desperately hopeless as an accurate factor.”
6. The current law is a deterrent, not a way to catch criminals
The current law is designed to discourage assisting the suicide of another person with potential penalties. When suicide is assisted, it is very rare that prosecutions do take place, as the Director of Public Prosecutions normally deems it not in the public interest. From April 1 2009 to March 31 2022, only 4 cases of encouraging or assisting suicide were successfully prosecuted.
7. Assisted suicide undermines suicide prevention efforts
A number of studies have demonstrated a causal link between the introduction of assisted suicide laws and an increase in non-assisted suicides (particularly for women) in both Europe and North America. There have been four peer-reviewed studies (link) on this topic in 2022 and they have all shown the same thing. In Oregon, suicide rates have risen by 24% since assisted suicide was introduced.
8. Vulnerable groups will be particularly adversely affected by assisted suicide
Many disabled groups are very frightened and offended by the prospect of assisted suicide legislation, and people thinking that they don’t want to live or their lives cannot be as “full” and are not worth living. No disability group has come out in support of assisted suicide. In Oregon in 2020, 53% who received lethal medication were concerned about being a burden on their families, friends, or caregivers, and in Belgium, hundreds of people have been euthanised for non-lethal conditions such as deafness or incontinence.
9. Assisted suicide does not only affect small numbers of people
Although campaigners for assisted suicide claim that the number of people accessing these services would be small, this is not backed up by evidence from around the world. In the Netherlands in 2020, euthanasia constituted more than 4% of all deaths, with numbers quadrupling since its inception. In Canada, where legislation was only introduced in 2016, assisted suicide already constitutes more than 3% of all deaths just a few years later.
10. We need more investment in palliative care
Although there are a small number of tragic cases where someone is in great pain that cannot be medically relieved, the overwhelming majority of deaths are peaceful and calm, particularly in light of developments in palliative care. In Canada, less than half of those who participate in assisted suicide or euthanasia even see a palliative care team, and the average growth in palliative care cases was far slower in countries which had brought in assisted dying than those without it. The UK Government backed an amendment last year to introduce palliative care as a legal right in NHS England and Wales for the first time.
Further Reading and resources