Since the BBC2 documentary in which Terry Pratchett explored the topic of euthanasia, debate has taken hold over whether individuals should have the right to die. However, the debate so far has conflated two very different questions: the first is ‘should one have a right to die?’ and the second is ‘if so, what should the law do about it?’
Pratchett’s documentary didn’t really touch on the second question, even though the answer may be very different to the first question. It is important to separate these questions, as any call to legalise assisted suicide is premature. The fact is, too little research has been done on the issue in the UK meaning we are in no position consider a law yet.
Most arguments for the right to die focus on ‘extreme cases’. Case in point is Diane Pretty, sufferer of motor neurone disease who was unable to physically function and therefore unable to take her own life. Pratchett’s documentary focussed on Peter Smedley, another sufferer of MND who would have deteriorated into a state similar to Pretty.
Daniel James was another extreme case that hit the headlines. Previously an active and fit young man, he was paralysed playing rugby and wanted to die. He eventually got his wish when his parents accompanied him to Dignitas, the Swiss clinic that offers assisted suicide. The Director of Public Prosecutions decided against prosecuting his parents, even though their actions probably broke the law.
I don’t think many people would disagree that these sorts of individuals should be allowed to die if they so choose. In fact, if they were physically capable they could commit suicide themselves. And even for those who are physically able to commit suicide, help from another person would probably make their death a less painful experience. It is easy to argue the law should provide that in these extreme cases euthanasia be legalised.
But here we reach the crux of the problem, contained in the second question – how can the law separate these extreme cases from others. These individuals have different diseases, and even those with the same disease are affected in different ways. Many of us care for elderly relatives, and know how vulnerable they are. If they thought they were becoming a bother and legally assisted suicide was available to them, I don’t think many suggestive words (maybe even unconsciously said) are required to push them to consider dying for convenience. And that is something contrary to everything that our society should stand for, and we must protect these individuals.
The first step to create any law which separates just from unjust cases is much needed research into the euthanasia issue. Without this, drafting a law is next to impossible since it will either catch too many, too few or the wrong cases. It is astounding that we do not actually know the scope of the problem, in particular how many genuine cases of assisted suicide there are.
Lord Falconer is currently chairing the Commission on Assisted Suicide, which is looking into the issue. Its composition has come under fire since many commissioners, including Falconer himself, are known advocates of assisted suicide. However, whatever the shortcomings, it is hoped this commission will at least begin the process of delving further into a subject which we know surprisingly little about.
In particular, it might be helpful to look at the effect of assisted suicide laws in other jurisdictions. For example, Oregon has a law which allows a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to a patient with a terminal illness upon request. An independent study found there was “no evidence of heightened risk” for vulnerable groups. Is this a workable model?
The Pratchett documentary has highlighted the growing support for a right to die. However it will be a while before this support is transformed into legislation. Research is crucial before we jump into law making. It is hoped the Commission on Assisted Suicide will at least begin to delve into the problem to begin the road to creating a fair and workable law allowing certain individuals to commit suicide with assistance.