The actual consequences of physician-assisted suicide

by Oxford Students for Life

Slippery slope arguments may usually be fallacious, but hard facts aren’t. As we draw nearer to Parliament’s debate the Marris Bill, we at OSFL thought we’d cast an eye over just a few of the problems that have arisen following the legalisation of assisted suicide abroad. This is by no means a comprehensive list and more information can be found here, here, and here

Let’s start with Oregon in the USA, since it has a law that is most similar to the one proposed in the Marris Bill. In Oregon, patients requesting lethal medicine as a result of depression or mental illness are meant to have a psychological test carried out. Only 3 patients of 105 last year had this examination. Medicaid covers assisted suicide in Oregon, but it doesn’t cover many important drugs that improve quality of life: life becomes expensive and death free. Over years, the financial costs of palliative care stack up  – when NHS budgets are squeezed, could we see economic pressure to end lives?

The state of Washington has largely copied Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, with some frightening results. The briefest doctor-patient relationship before the prescription of an assisted suicide was under a week. Could any doctor really judge the pressures and problems a patient faces after only knowing them a week? In 2014, 59% of people asking for an assisted suicide stated as motivation the fear that they would be a burden on family, friends, or carers. This flies in the face of the common claim that assisted dying empowers the frail.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are both famously legal in the Netherlands. In 2012, 3% of deaths in the Netherlands were the result of euthanasia or assisted suicide.  Of those, 7% were done without the explicit request of the patient. A lot of arguments for assisted suicide emphasise the will of the patient. But if an assisted suicide is truly in a patient’s best interests, it’s unclear why it should only be prescribed if he or she asks for it. In practice, the role of explicit consent can easily fade away. Furthermore, Dutch children aged 12-16 are able to request and be assisted in suicide if their parents agree. The Marris Bill is limited to those over 18. But again, why shouldn’t this eventually change to include children if there is nothing wrong with assisted suicide? Some Dutch patients have been granted an assisted suicide when they are simply ‘tired of living’. The safeguards in the Marris Bill aren’t safe – they have eroded everywhere that similar laws have been put in place.

In the news recently for extending euthanasia to children of any age, Belgium is a cautionary tale for a country deciding whether or not to legalise assisted suicide. For the most part, Belgian patients are not referred for an assisted suicide by a doctor who is a specialist in palliative care. In other words, they are referred by someone who does not have expert knowledge of ways to minimise suffering. To an unspecialised doctor, assisted suicide may seem like the best option because he/she does not know what else to offer. Assisted suicide is being prescribed in ignorance.

But you don’t even need to look at real-life consequences of physician-assisted suicide to see what’s wrong with it. If Parliament passes the Marris Bill, it will send the message that the lives of the terminally ill are worth less than the lives of the healthy, and that the state will no longer protect the sick in the same way. The law should not be making judgements about the value of people’s lives. All life is valuable, and deserves protection.

To write to your MP, go to them know that life is valuable.