TOPIC GUIDE: Assisted Dying

"Physician assisted suicide should be legalised"

PUBLISHED: 23 Jan 2015

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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On the 5th of June 2014, the Assisted Dying Bill passed its first reading in the House of Lords [Ref: BBC News]. Potentially, this set in motion a process which could mean that within two years, terminally ill patients with less than six months to live, will be able to obtain medication from a physician to end their life [Ref: House of Lords]. Supporters claim that assisted suicide must be legalised because it is compassionate, and will give the terminally ill the choice to end their: “...intolerable suffering, which cannot be relieved by palliative care” [Ref: Independent]. And many note that the law as it currently stands, fails to give people any choice in how or when they want to end their life, sometimes resulting in them taking extreme measures which fail to afford them the dignity they are entitled to [Ref: Independent]. Others however, have moral reservations about enacting a change in the law. They argue that it would fundamentally change our relationship with death and dying, concluding that legalising assisted suicide: “...brutalises society, because the loss of respect for life diminishes the life of every person” [Ref: The Times]. Opinion on this emotive subject is sharply polarised, with important moral questions of individual autonomy and choice, clashing with concerns about the wider societal consequences of formally involving the State and doctors in the suicide of individuals. Will legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill mark the top of a slippery slope, and set a precedent with worrying consequences for us all? Or is it an enlightened and compassionate attempt to give choice to the dying, allowing them to end their lives with dignity and without pain? Should we legalise physician assisted suicide?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What would a change in the law mean?
It is important to distinguish between euthanasia and assisted suicide in this debate – with euthanasia pertaining to a doctor directly administering drugs to end a patient’s life [Ref: NHS]. The Assisted Suicide Bill would not legalise this - rather, it would make it possible for a physician to prescribe drugs for the patient to take themselves, after it is determined that they have less than 6 months to live, and after their mental health has been assessed by two doctors (one of them independent) [Ref: House of Lords]. As the law currently stands in the UK, both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, with euthanasia punishable by life imprisonment, and assisted suicide illegal under the 1961 Suicide Act and punishable by up to 14yrs in prison [Ref: NHS]. Practically speaking, changing the law would mean that: “A person who provides any assistance in accordance with this Act shall not be guilty of an offence” [Ref: House of Lords]. Opponents caution that the law would: “Create a new moral landscape” [Ref: Guardian], and question whether its benefit to a small number people is worthwhile. Whilst supporters argue that it is an important step towards humanising the process of death, pointing to the success of a similar law in the American State of Oregon [Ref: Oregon.Gov].

Sanctity of life Vs dignity in death
For Desmond Tutu, a change in the law would not degrade of the sanctity of human life, but instead, would recognise the right of individuals to have: “...autonomy and dignity” in death [Ref: Guardian]. Furthermore, other advocates suggest that ultimately, it is about choice – giving those who want the option to end their lives when they are terminally ill, the ability to do so, with one broadsheet editorial stating that: “Arguably, those who don’t opt for assisted dying are strengthened by the knowledge that should their suffering become intolerable, they could end their lives if they choose” [Ref: Observer].

Others are critical of these claims however, stating that legalising assisted suicide legitimates the idea that some lives are of less value than others. Academic Dr Kevin Yuill for instance compares the death penalty with assisted suicide, and suggests that morally they are no different – both diminish the sanctity of life. “ If we are to place value on even the most wretched of human lives – an important marker of civilisation – neither the death penalty or assisted suicide can be justified” [Ref: Independent] he argues. In addition, Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury, questions the understanding of compassion by advocates of assisted suicide, arguing that instead of relieving people of suffering, compassion is actually: “...a commitment to sharing in the suffering of others….(and) offering hope, even in the darkest of circumstances” [Ref: The Times]. There are also worries in some quarters about the role of doctors in the process, with Melanie Phillips arguing that a change in the law would: “...turn doctors into executioners” [Ref: The Times], with one poll suggesting that only 29% of doctors supported assisted suicide [Ref: The Times].

A Slippery Slope?
Although 69% of the public think the law should be changed to allow assisted suicide of the terminally ill [Ref: YouGov], Melanie McDonagh, argues that the proposals amount to: “ open door, waiting to be pushed open further” [Ref: Spectator], a worry that many opponents of the proposed law have. Some point to the recent law which legalises euthanasia for children in Belgium, 11 years after the same law was passed for adults [Ref: Telegraph] as evidence of where legislation in this area can eventually lead to. Others are anxious about the message it sends out to the disabled or mentally ill, with one campaigner outlining that in time, it could be used to justify the assisted suicide of other vulnerable groups [Ref: Huffington Post], because the new law suggests that: “Life that doesn’t meet certain conditions, is worthy of no respect at all” [Ref: The Times]. However, although supporters are mindful of the ethical problems involved in the discussion, and caution that: “Gradualism…is warranted” [Ref: Economist], they nonetheless disagree with the slippery slope arguments employed by critics. As evidence, Professor Raymond Tallis cites the American state of Oregon which passed the Death With Dignity Act 17 years ago, and yet the proportion of deaths which are physician assisted has never been more than 0.25% of deaths in that time [Ref: Independent]. And columnist Polly Toynbee states that arguments about the uncertainty of where the changes could lead are used inappropriately in this case, because: “Everything is a potential slippery slope to somewhere: the law is there to define precisely how far, and no further” [Ref: Guardian]. So, will legalising physician assisted suicide fundamentally change the way in which society views death and dying, and does this have repercussions for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled? Or is it an important step in recognising the autonomy of the individual, because: “...any meaningful right to life entails the right to choose how we die” [Ref: Huffington Post].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Easeful Death

Economist 19 July 2014


Assisted dying would turn doctors into executioners

Kevin Yuill Independent 18 July 2014

Safeguard Life

Guardian 17 July 2014

Lord Carey is wrong: assisted dying is anti-Christian

Tim Stanley Telegraph 12 July 2014

Assisted dying transforms doctors into killers

Melanie Phillips The Times 7 July 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Assisted suicide is an act of kindness we all might need

Polly Toynbee Guardian 7 November 2014

Seizing some control

Economist 19 October 2014

Falconer Bill: A step in the right direction

Pavan Dhawali Huffington Post 18 July 2014

Life and death

The Times 18 July 2014

5 reasons the Assisted dying Bill is long overdue

Kieran Turner-Dave Huffington Post 17 July 2014

Give me the right to live, not die

Simon Stevens Huffington Post 15 July 2014

Helping people to die is not truly compassionate

Justin Welby The Times 12 July 2014

YouGov Poll

YouGov 6 July 2014

The State should not be the God of death

Jon Holbrook spiked 3 July 2014

Moral Law

The Times 26 June 2014

Why I’m opposed to assisted suicide

Matthew Parris The Times 1 August 2009


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


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