Physician-assisted suicide is a law that suits the strong and determined

Last night I spoke against the motion: ‘This House Would Legalise Assisted Dying’ at the Cambridge Union. The motion was carried by a wide margin.

The result did not come as a surprise. Persuading an audience dominated by intelligent, articulate, wealthy and strong-willed people that licensing assisted suicide would be a dangerous step will always be a challenge. After all, the strongest argument against the legalisation of physician-assisted suicide is that it is a law that suits the strong and determined at the expense of the weak and unsure. If you fall into the former category the option of an assisted death, presented as the only alternative to undignified suffering, will undoubtedly be an attractive one.

During a debate on assisted suicide in the House of Lords in July 2009, the Bishop of Exeter made this very point:

“I speak as the father of a 30 year-old woman with Down’s Syndrome. For much of her life, she and others like her have been the subject of countless government and other programmes, apparently intended to increase responsibility and choice.

“However, the lived experience of my daughter’s life is that, for people like her, intention and reality often end up being far apart…speeches about freedom, choice and personal autonomy may be fine for those, including many of us in your Lordships’ House, who are well educated, articulate and not totally economically dependent on others.

“We are used to shaping our lives through the autonomous choices that we make. However, I ask noble Lords to reflect for a moment on the many people, in this country and the world, whose experience of life is much more about being ‘done unto’ -sometimes by those closest to them.”

Parliamentarians pushing for assisted suicide are pushing for this option precisely because they are the type of autonomous and determined individuals who might choose it; the privileged few who are unlikely to be coerced or neglected under such a law.

Opponents of legalising assisted suicide are regularly berated for their lack of empathy with those few who want an assisted suicide. But parliamentarians also owe a debt of empathy to the many who are vulnerable, uncertain and dependent.

Should Lord Falconer’s ‘assisted dying’ bill be granted parliamentary time this year, we must hope that legislators remember that they are not typical of the rest of British society and citizens vulnerable to being ‘done unto’ also deserve the full protection of the law.