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Assisted Suicide

Assisted suicide is when an individual helps another person to bring about their own death.  This may involve a variety of measures including obtaining large quantities of drugs to enable a person to take an overdose; administering drugs as an overdose or lethal injection; or taking a person to a place where someone else deliberately ends their life.

Assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are all terms used to describe ending a person’s life and are sometimes used interchangeably but they do have different meanings.  There is a difference, for example, between active euthanasia where a person deliberately intervenes to end someone’s life and passive euthanasia where a person causes death by withholding treatment which is necessary to maintain life.  There is also voluntary euthanasia where a person makes a conscious decision to die and asks for help to do this, and non-voluntary euthanasia where someone is unable to give their consent and someone else makes the decision for them because they have previously expressed a wish for this.

In the vast majority of cases where assisted suicide or euthanasia are considered it is because a person is in extreme pain or their quality of life has become severely diminished.  Often, their condition is terminal but they feel unable to cope with a long period of indignity, pain and suffering and feel the need to expedite their own death.  Historically, perhaps, little could be done to relieve this kind of suffering but, with modern medicine and the advent of palliative care, pain control is often more manageable. It is also possible for patients to plan for their final illness by using a Living Will or Advance Care Directive.

In some countries, such as The Netherlands and Switzerland, assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal but both are illegal under English Law with euthanasia being treated as manslaughter or murder and punishable by long prison sentences.  In England many attempts have been made to legalise assisted suicide: those in favour speak of dying with dignity and the right to die as personal choices, whilst those opposed often use a “slippery slope” argument to protect the vulnerable and disabled. They fear that once voluntary euthanasia is sanctioned it is only a question of time before non-voluntary euthanasia becomes the norm.

Many health care professionals  maintain that their primary job is to preserve life; opposition to assisted suicide is highest among palliative care practitioners.  On the other hand, a number of organisations exist which promote the right to assisted suicide and people often travel to other countries where it is legal in order to end their own life.

Many faith communities oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia, seeing life as God-given and sacred, and regarding death as something natural which should not be hastened.  Most such groups, however, do not insist on burdensome treatments to keep people alive but advocate the use of palliative care, as long as the intention is to relieve pain and not directly to shorten life, although this may sometimes be a side-effect of pain relief.  The subject is complex and further attempts to change the law are likely in the future.

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