Assisted Suicide - A Morally Justified Act or a Desensitised Killing?

Edward Baker - Writer

The illegality of euthanasia is an area of contention with legal, moral and ethical issues all to be considered. The ultimate decision to end an individual's life can be seen as a welcomed end to suffering for one person, but a palpable wrong undermining the value of human life to another. It is an area that receives radical views at both ends of the spectrum and, at a glance, a minute chance of any possible compromisation.

The invention of a modern suicide machine by Dr Philip Nitschke has surfaced these concerns with visible change to suicide methods and represents a possible threat to the law. In most countries suicide is not illegal due to the nature of the act, how can you enforce the law when the perpetrator is dead? However the act of assisting suicide or euthanaisa is often found to be illegal. The machine promoted by Dr Nitschke allows users to kill themselves without assistance using nitrogen gas, an arguably preferable alternative than conventional methods i.e. jumping in front of a train. This would circumvent any need for assistance, and would keep the act legal. This solves a substantial issue in 85 countries where there is a legality stance on suicide but euthanaisa and assited suicide is illegal. Could this pose a real risk to a rapid increase in organised suicides utilising technology to bypass unclear legal restrictions?

It is of great importance to be able to understand the reasons from both sides of the argument to make a value judgement on how suicide legislation should be improved. The main theme underpinning the argument against any form of suicide is the value of human life. It is argued that allowing suicide would be contrary to the special and incredible nature of life. The prospects of alternative methods such as palliative care offer more humane methods for those who are terminally ill; furthermore, the availability of other procedures and treatments for those suffering from mental health issues can lead to recovery, rather than ending life prematurely.

Arguments for the legality of suicide, assisted dying and euthansia stem from dignity and the prevention of human suffering. Where an individual has a future where loss of physical and mental capacity is imminent and inevitable, the availability of suicide and assitance is seen as morally justifiable, this is demonstrated by Richard Selly, suffering from Motor Neurone desease, describing himself as a ‘Prisoner in his own body’. Benefits such as prepared organ donation and savings in care costs can be considered, however it is argued that there should be no cost attached to the value of life and the abililty to assist suicide could be used for selfish gain. The compromise between the two views comes in safeguards attached in the ability to end life, such as allowing it for only the terminal ill.

Illegality of assisted suicide in the UK is cemented in the Suicide Act 1961 which poses a possible 14 years imprisonment for complicity within suicide. There have been several parliamentary bills put forward to overcome this legislation but none have succeeded. Therefore, several high profile press cases have arisen, initiating campaign groups such as Dignity in Dying.

The case of Debbie Purdy, a Multiple Sclerosis sufferer also sought to bring change. Debbiewanted control and a choice in deciding how she should die, by accessing assisted suicide methods, provided that her husband would not be prosecuted for complicity. The House of Lords ruled the case in her favour, finding a need for clearer guidelines concerning when prosecution should take place for the encouragement or assistance in suicide. This resulted in the ‘Prosecution Policy’ by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP); This has not amended the law but instead has provided public interest factors to consider in determining when prosecution would be more justified, such as being paid by the person committing suicide.

Due to rigid suicide legislation in most countries, a favoured route is an attempt to find a violation of Human Rights. Dianne Pretty was among the applicants to do this. In the case of Pretty v UK, an argument that a right to life includes the choice of how to end it under Article 2 was presented before the European Court of Human Rights. This argument was rejected, but it was found to be an Article 8 issue (in particular, the right to a private life). The Supreme Court found in the Tony Nicklinson case, a complete ban on assiting suicide could be found incompatible unless Parliament acts to refrom it due to the legislative nature of the issue. The court could enforce action upon Parliament if no change occurs. This is visible in section 3 and section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998. In section 3, the legislation in issue must be read to be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Where this is not possible, the courts can issue section 4 of the Act, which would declare the Sucide Act 1961 incompatible with Human Rights, and therefore requiring amendment.

The right to die movement has undergone recent development and progression, particularly in the field of Human Rights. However, the focus has been drawn to the cause of suicides in recent years with an increase in recognition of mental health, and an aim to reduce this widespread issue. It is therefore unlikely that a right to die will be an accessible right to everyone. Instead, progressives may focus on the right for those who are suffering a terminal illness, bysupporting decriminalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide in these cases. The future of suicide legislation still remains unclear and will alway be inhibited by the motive and duty to protect life where possible.


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