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Big debate: Assisted suicide

17:16 11 February 2014

Vvarious pills in packets. Picture: PA/Thinkstockphotos

Vvarious pills in packets. Picture: PA/Thinkstockphotos

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The right-to-die debate has been re-ignited in the wake of the storyline in TV soap Coronation Street in which cancer sufferer Hayler Cropper took her own life.

In Switzerland, assisted suicide has been legal since the 1940s, while a bill allowing a terminally ill person to choose the manner and timing of their death could come into force in this country following a debate set for the House of Lords later this year.

This week, Michael Charouneau, press officer for an organision that campaigns to legalise the assisted dying for the terminally ill, and Peter Saunders, the campaign director of an alliance of 40 organisations opposed to legalisation in any form, state their cases.

Michael Charouneau, press support officer for Dignity in Dying

Assisted dying provides a choice to terminally ill, mentally competent people who want control over the manner and timing of their death.

Michael CharouneauMichael Charouneau

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will allow dying people to opt out of suffering against their wishes in the last weeks or months of their illness, while implementing strict safeguards to protect people better than the current law does.

The Bill gives parliament the opportunity to act on what the overwhelming majority of the public want; more choice and control at the end of life.

At the moment British people are being forced into unimaginable situations simply to have control over their death.

One Briton a fortnight is travelling abroad and dying in a foreign country at great financial and personal cost.

Peter SaundersPeter Saunders

They have to confront the idea that their loved ones could be prosecuted when they return home without them.

This threat of prosecution leads others to end their life alone in the absence of friends and family, most probably earlier than they would have if there had been a compassionate law in place.

The UK provides some of the best palliative care in the world, and for most this allows dying people to experience a good death.

However, for those dying people for whom palliative care does not relieve all suffering, and those who want to decide when and where they end their life, this is not enough.

Assisted dying has been legal and working safely in the state of Oregon in the United States for 15 years, so why does a vocal minority in this country refuse to face up to the evidence?

The law has never been extended beyond those who are terminally ill and since its implementation there have been fewer than 80 assisted deaths per year.

An assisted dying law in Britain would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering.

Peter Saunders, campaign director, Care Not Killing Alliance

This issue is understandably emotive but hard cases make bad law and even in a free democratic society there are limits to human freedom. Our present law does not need changing.

The penalties it holds in reserve act as a strong deterrent to exploitation and abuse, while giving discretion to prosecutors and judges to temper justice with mercy. Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia would inevitably place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others.

This would especially affect people who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed and would be accentuated at this time of economic recession with families and health budgets under pressure.

Elder abuse and neglect by families, carers and institutions are already real and dangerous, and would be made worse.

Any “safeguards” against abuse, such as limiting it to certain categories of people, will not work. The news coming from other jurisdictions which have gone down this route, particularly Belgium and the Netherlands, shows a pattern of incremental extension; an increase in cases year on year, a widening of categories of people to be included and people being killed without their consent.

Belgium is on the verge of legalising euthanasia for children and in the Netherlands babies with spina bifida and people with dementia are already put to death.

This is why British parliaments have rejected the legalisation of assisted suicide three times in the past seven years and why the majority of UK doctors, almost all medical groups, including the BMA, RCP and RCGP, and all major disabled people’s advocacy groups are also opposed. Persistent requests for euthanasia are rare if people are properly cared for, so our priority must be to ensure that good care, addressing people’s physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs, is accessible to all.

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