Last Monday, November 9th, a panel of four experts – Dr. Peter Saunders, Dr. Kevin Yuill, Dr. Richard Scheffer, and Dr. Jacky Davis – came together to debate the motion ‘This House opposes the legalisation of assisted suicide’. After a forty-five minute exchange, the panel opened up for questions, most of which addressed specific claims repeated by each side throughout the debate. Both the proposition and the opposition relied on several key points to make their cases; here, we take a look at the ones that proved the stickiest.
‘Assisted dying isn’t suicide’
Dr. Scheffer began his opening remarks with this punchy assertion. ‘Nobody’, he claimed, ‘wants to die’. Unlike those who commit suicide, he argued, those who choose assisted dying don’t want to die, but are already dying and simply want to avoid a highly painful or undignified death. Dr. Davis affirmed this in her speech as well; the pair emphasised that assisted suicide ought to be considered a vital part of palliative care for the dying, and is not for the suicidal.
But this is controversial. After all, an audience member asked, what about nihilists? Why is the desire to live a criterion for being able to ask a doctor to help you die? And how is it possible to argue that those asking for legal drugs, to take themselves, don’t want to die? If assisted dying isn’t suicide, there’s very little that seems to distinguish the two; fundamentally, both are caused, at least in part, by a desire to end one’s own life. And after some grumbling, Drs. Scheffer and Davis admitted that this is true; at the very least, those who ask for assisted dying have formed a will to die by the time they actually do so.
‘Assisted dying laws undermine moral equality’
Dr. Yuill’s arguments hinged on this claim. Assisted dying laws, no matter how well-worded and safeguarded they may be, ultimately create two moral classes of people in society; those whose lives are worth protecting, and those whose lives are not. A terminal diagnosis and six-month prognosis, he argued, are just arbitrary criteria, which can be changed or thrown out once it becomes permissible to say that person A may not be given lethal drugs, but person B may. Those who wish to die may not believe their lives have value, but it is the duty of the law to afford every life value, and equal value at that. The opposition didn’t counter this point directly, but instead argued that assisted dying is about freedom, not equality.
‘It’s working in Oregon’
In the final round of questions, Dr. Saunders remarked that ‘it’s pretty clear we have different ideas about what’s going on in Oregon’. Oregon came up frequently in the debate, as assisted dying bills in the UK have been largely modelled off of Oregon’s assisted suicide laws. The opposition cited Oregon’s law as a perfect example of a restricted, safe, functional assisted dying law. The proposition, on the other hand, pointed out that only a fraction of those who die by assisted suicide in Oregon actually underwent the psychological evaluations that candidates for assisted dying are supposed to receive, showing that the safeguards aren’t really that effective. Moreover, they pointed out, in Oregon, health insurance for low-income people covers assisted dying, but doesn’t cover many forms of palliative care. It can be more expensive to keep someone alive than it is to kill them; Oregon is a sad example of this.
‘Assisted dying undermines and threatens the vulnerable’
Dr. Davis rejected outright the claim that assisted dying undermines vulnerable people. She cited an instance in which her patient came to her, saying she’d been told to oppose the law because it threatened ‘vulnerable people’, but she didn’t know who those people were supposed to be. The vagueness here is worth clarifying, which the proposition could have done more of. Still, they pointed out that in places where assisted dying is legal, the elderly, frail, lonely, and depressed often feel increased pressure to consider physician-assisted suicide, because a previously unthinkable option is suddenly on the table. Though many of those who would be in this position are, sadly, on the fringes of society, many have come forward to oppose assisted suicide; some of the strongest opposition to a change in the law has come from disability advocacy groups.
‘The law would be restricted, and safe’
Time and time again, proponents of assisted dying have emphasised that any change in the law in the UK would be heavily safeguarded, and that therefore a ‘slippery slope’ argument just doesn’t work. Drs. Scheffer and Davis both repeated this point. But the proposition responded that despite good intentions, advocates for legal assisted dying can’t deny that safeguards have failed in many places, and that once the law is changed, there’s no guaranteeing its application. While the law may have safeguards and restrictions, once the door to legal physician-assisted suicide is opened, there’s simply no way to make sure it’s not abused. Are we willing to risk it?
The audience wasn’t – a final vote passed the motion by a significant margin. While both sides made clear and strong points, the opposition couldn’t persuade those listening that any good assisted dying laws could do wouldn’t be outweighed by the tremendous risk we would take in passing them. Though both sides emphasised compassion and mercy for the dying, the proposition made a powerful case that legal assisted suicide would be a threat to public safety. The push for assisted dying isn’t a solution to our problems; it’s a symptom of them.