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The UK's Assisted Dying

Britain has become a much more liberal country in recent decades. In 1981 only 12% of Britons thought that homosexuality was justifiable, according to the World Values Survey; in 2022 the figure was 66%. Over the same period the proportion of people who were accepting of divorce rose from 18% to 64%. Where the public has led, politicians have followed: same-sex marriages were legalized in 2013; no-fault divorces became possible in 2022. That pattern may well be about to repeat itself with assisted dying.

Over two-thirds of Britons support changing the law to let someone help in the suicide of a person with a terminal illness. Assisted dying has a good chance of getting on the statute book in the near future. Bills are already in progress on the Isle of Man, in Jersey and in Scotland. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is sympathetic and has promised a free vote among MPs if his party wins the next general election.

The case for assisted dying is, at its core, one of individual freedom. Britons have the right to marry whom they want. They have the right to roam. Through an obscure medieval law, some even have the right to drive sheep across London Bridge. They should have the right to choose the manner and timing of their death. The more complex question is what form an assisted-dying regime should take. That is not just to ensure safeguards against abuses, though it must undoubtedly do that. It is also to make sure that the law is not drawn too tightly.

Britain is in many ways late to the issue (as are countries like Ireland and France; a bill was presented to the French cabinet this week). Belgium, the Netherlands, Oregon and Switzerland have had assisted-dying laws for decades. Seventeen jurisdictions have passed laws since we argued in favour of legalization in 2015. Although opponents of assisted dying have deeply held beliefs, and raise legitimate concerns, the actual experience of these many jurisdictions strengthens the arguments in its favour.

Take concerns about coercion. Critics argue that no regime could ever fully protect the vulnerable from relatives looking to claim an inheritance, or indeed from a state seeking to cut health-care costs. Yet the evidence suggests that cases of coercion are extremely rare.

The state should do its best to help people live well, whether through social support or palliative care, but if it cannot, those who truly wish to die should not be obliged to suffer. In places where an assisted death remains illegal, only those with money have the option to take matters into their own hands—on average one Briton a week travels to Switzerland to end their life there. The rights of hypothetically vulnerable patients are taking precedence over the rights of those who are actually in anguish.

On a final note, if assisted dying is approved there has to be control to stamp out any foul play. Unfortunately, assisted dying could be the opportunity that nasty offspring see it as a means to a way to take advantage earlier than later.

Take care!

Prof. Carl Boniface


Vocabulary builder:

The statute book (n) = a book in which laws are written.

Coercion (n) = pressure, compulsion, intimidation, bullying, duress, strong-arming, oppression, cruelty

Foul play (n) = criminal action, treachery, villainy, dishonesty, violence, crime, (ant) honesty, fairness

Palliative (adj) = soothing, relaxing, comforting, mollifying, painkilling, analgesic, sedative

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