Autonomy, dignity and compassion. We wish to experience these things in our lives, so why shouldn’t we experience them in our deaths? That’s the argument made by those who support a change in the law to legalise assisted dying in the UK. People who are suffering intractably, they claim, but who are too ill to self-administer life-ending medication should have the right to be helped to end their lives. This would give choice and control to people with a terminal illness, marking a change from the current situation in which they must either take their own lives while they still have the capacity to do so, or continue to live in the knowledge that they are likely to become trapped in a state of intolerable suffering, which they cannot be helped out of. Of course we need to be aware of the so-called ‘slippery slope’ argument, which holds that a change in the law would lead to a situation where it becomes acceptable to kill people who do not wish to die. But with proper safeguards in place, claim its supporters, legalised assisted dying would be the hallmark of a civilised society.
Quite the reverse, argue those who would keep the law unchanged. Assisted suicide is not the private act of an individual, they say, but one that involves relatives, friends, healthcare staff and society at large. The ‘right to die’, they insist, imposes a ‘duty to kill’ on someone else, most likely a doctor, imposing restrictions on that person’s autonomy. And then there is the risk of coercion by family members who stand to gain by a relative’s death. All too easily, the ‘right to die’ can become the ‘duty to die’, as people who are sick or disabled feel they should stop being a financial or emotional burden on those around them. Assisted dying would make death not something that we must simply accept when the time comes but a decision that each individual is responsible for – a move that would be deeply damaging to our society.
Should assisted dying be viewed as a human right or as a danger to the most vulnerable people in our society?
Arguing in favour of the motion were A. C. Grayling, Founder and Principal of New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University, and Professor of Philosophy; and Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon and bestselling author, who was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2021.
Arguing against the motion were Anne Atkins, novelist and broadcaster; and Katherine Sleeman, Laing Galazka Chair in Palliative Care at King's College London and an honorary consultant in Palliative Medicine at King's College Hospital NHS Trust.
The debate was chaired by paediatric doctor and TV presenter Guddi Singh.
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