I wrote a post about rational suicide a few weeks ago which attracted a lot of interest, and even spawned a post on another site dedicated to debunking my viewpoint. This issue and that of physician assisted suicide is rarely far from the headlines and clearly is a subject which excites strongly held opinions. Most recently conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife are reported to have died together at the controversial Swiss assisted suicide clinic Dignitas. For a small organisation it attracts an impressive amount of coverage and its actions may have a substantial influence on future UK legislation.
For many people the discussion of the right to die is a simple one: people should not have to suffer toward the end of their lives and have the right to choose the time and means of their own passing. This attitude is in line with the increasing emphasis on choice and self determination in our society of which suicide is perhaps the ultimate expression. There are strong emotions involved and polarized viewpoints, but shouldn’t mean that we shy away from discussion both about philosophical underpinnings as well as more practical aspects.
I am concerned that where assisted dying to become legal in this country doctors would be expected to take a central role and this would sit unhappily with our usual duties. Psychiatrists would regularly be called up to make difficult assessments about capacity and some of us might find being asked to assist in someone’s death very distressing. Outside these professional concerns, and more fundamentally, is the message that legalised assisted dying would send out to vulnerable people who are near to the end of their lives. Elderly people may worry that they are a burden or that their care is costing too much, and with a legal way of reaching a swift resolution may feel a duty to move on. I cannot see how we could safe guard against this.
Sir Edward was elderly and frail but not terminally ill when he chose to take his life. Apparently decided that he could not live without his wife and choose to end his life when she was choosing to end hers. Most discussion about assisted suicide has focused on incurable conditions, which Sir Edward did not have. Enabling people in similar situations to Sir Edward to take their own lives is disquieting to me.
Addendum 16 July 2009
What I think about Sir Edward Downes’ decision to ‘die with dignity’ Guardian