In any campaign, it is always important to properly understand the arguments advanced by those you oppose. In this three-part series, we’ll look at the main arguments put forward by advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Then we’ll look at the main arguments against changing the current law. Finally, we’ll engage with what lies at the heart of this debate.
For the avoidance of doubt, at the moment assisted suicide is illegal in the UK. The 1961 Suicide Act outlaws any form of assisted suicide, and the maximum penalty is 14 years in prison. However, Baroness Finlay has said that the law has a ‘stern face with a kind heart’, which means it sends a strong message that deters abuse and exploitation, but that it gives discretion to prosecutors in hard cases.
What do campaigners want?
Those pushing for some form of assisted suicide want the law to be changed so assisted suicide becomes legal in certain circumstances. When Parliament last voted on the issue in 2015, the Assisted Dying Bill (No 2) would have legalised assisted suicide for terminally ill adults with just 6 months left to live.
What are the arguments?
While this is a complex debate, with many different arguments put forward, we will attempt to summarise the main ideas.
We need it: the compassionate argument
Firstly, those in favour of a change in the law will employ arguments based on compassion. Faced with unbearable suffering, they argue that it is unkind and uncompassionate to deny patients the choice to kill themselves. The high-profile cases prevalent in the media often play on this particular angle.
We want it: the autonomy argument
This argument is centred on the idea that people should be free to live as they choose – thus surely this must extend to decisions about when we die. Bodily autonomy matters in our society and people should be liberated to make their own choice about end-of-life issues, just as we make choices in other areas of our life.
We can control it: the reasonable argument
Finally, those in favour of assisted suicide say that we can use legislation to control any assisted suicide law. They argue that vulnerable people could be protected while still allowing people their fundamental right to choose when to die.
At CARE, we argue that these arguments are fundamentally flawed, and are insufficient to support a change in the current law. Life is precious and your worth as an individual does not depend on your circumstances. We have always said and continue to believe that it is better to care, not to kill.
It would be wrong and foolish to deny the reality that fears about death, fear of losing dignity and of dealing with severe pain are very real for people. Diseases like Alzheimer’s are more common today than they were. People are living longer which puts pressure on social care resources.
In order to persuade people that euthanasia and assisted suicide are wrong, we must start by listening to the concerns people have and engage in the arguments being made.