Different values and different morals come from different people. Whilst some believe in the sanctity of life and that death is a natural process, others may believe in their autonomy to control their life and death, with dignity. A method of enabling such dignity in death is through assisted suicide.
Here is an informative guide to understanding assisted suicide, and the perspectives of those who choose to employ the procedure.
What is Assisted Suicide?
Assisted suicide is the procedure of a doctor providing, and a patient self-administering, lethal drugs. The doctor merely aids in the process, whilst the patient maintains their autonomy by carrying out the final act themself. This is usually through swallowing the lethal drugs with a glass of water, however, depending on the patient’s capabilities, the drugs may be administered intravenously or through a gastric tube. Whichever method is employed, it is integral that the final act is carried out by the individual themselves, for example turning the valve for an intravenous access tube.
It is important to note that euthanasia and assisted suicide are distinct procedures. Euthanasia consists of the doctor administering the drugs and carrying out the act. Whilst on the other hand, assisted suicide consists of the doctor merely providing drugs, and the patient carries out the final act.
Is it Legal Anywhere in the World?
In England and Wales, there is a robust approach in the prohibition of assisted suicide. On occasions there have indeed been calls for its legalisation, however Parliament has been reluctant to implement change. Currently, it is illegal to carry out the procedure of assisted suicide in England and Wales.
However, there are many other nations that take a different approach. The Netherlands takes an approach of allowing people to die if they have an unbearable illness with no prospect of improvement. Oregon, USA, on the other hand takes an approach of allowing the procedure if an individual is diagnosed with a terminal illness and has less than six months left to live.
Most notably, Switzerland also allows for the undertaking of assisted suicide, so long as there are no “selfish motives” in the procedure. In fact, a famous organisation by the name of ‘DIGNITAS’ provides services of assisted suicide for those who wish to end their life. The rationale behind this being that people should have autonomy in life and death, and therefore should be able to die with dignity, rather than suffering a gruesome death.
How Does DIGNITAS Work?
DIGNITAS works by adhering to the Swiss Federal Criminal Code: that assisted suicide is permitted provided that anyone who assists in the procedure is not acting from any “selfish motives.” As the doctors at DIGNITAS are paid to assist in this procedure, their selfish motives are “out of the question.”
The actual process of assisted suicide is assured to be “absolutely risk-free and painless.” An anti-emetic drug is taken to prevent vomiting, followed by a fatal dose of a sleeping narcotic called Sodium Pentobarbital (NaP). NaP is an alkaline solution and does not taste pleasant, therefore something sugary is usually eaten afterwards. Once the NaP is self-administered, the patient will fall asleep within 2-5 minutes, before slipping into a deep coma. After some time, the NaP paralyses the respiratory centre which leads to the individual’s passing.
Although it is not just assisted suicide that DIGNITAS helps its members with. For those who are not seeking dignity in death, rather, help with their woes, DIGNITAS can offer therapy; consultations; and medication too.
So Can People in the UK Legally Travel to DIGNITAS?
Yes, Parliament has indeed acknowledged that there are some people who wish to control their death and end their life with dignity. In fact, it was reported that on average, one Briton travels to DIGNITAS every eight days.
In order to travel to DIGNITAS in Switzerland, an individual must pay a membership fee to the organisation, as well as accommodation in Switzerland for the final days of their life. Notably, there is of course the cost of the flight to Switzerland, but it is also required that a return flight be paid for in order to ensure that the individual has the option to change their mind. Autonomy for individuals is therefore at the heart of DIGNITAS. However, these costs can add up to anywhere between £6,500 and £15,000, leaving many with little alternative if they cannot afford this.
What Happens if People Cannot Afford DIGNITAS?
Well, here is the dilemma. A fairly recent survey found that 68% of UK households have less than £10,000 in savings. With the cost of DIGNITAS climbing up to £15,000 it is clear that those who wish to die with dignity but cannot afford it, are left with only gruesome options if they wish to fulfil their desire.
Whilst the personal act of suicide is legalised in England and Wales, the law does not allow for the procedure to take place with the assistance of others. This then leaves those who are dependent on others, with limited options. The only alternative for these people is to refrain from treatment in order to induce their own death.
The saddening story of Tony Nicklinson shows the lack of sympathy given by the courts:
- Tony Nicklinson suffered a stroke in 2005, leaving him with locked-in syndrome. His condition was not life threatening and he had a reasonable expectation of living many years, yet he described his life as a “living nightmare”.
- In 2007, Tony expressed his desire to end his own life and sought a declaration from the High Court for a doctor to lawfully assist him with no risk of criminal charges. However, this was rejected by the court, and so was his follow up argument of incompatibility with his right to a private life.
- There was no sympathy given to Tony’s suffering, and sadly, he passed away six days later from refusing food following the judgement.
It seems that an individual who is suffering in the UK and cannot afford to travel to DIGNITAS, is left with only one option: refuse treatment until their body fails them. It is difficult not to feel great sympathy for the gruesomeness of this method, and this has provided support for the campaign to change the law and allow people in England and Wales to die with dignity.
Will it Ever be Legal in England and Wales?
Indeed there have been calls for the legalisation in England and Wales, but so far this has not been implemented.
It has been argued that assisted suicide does not harm those who are not involved in the process. Therefore, the prohibition places a needless restriction on a patient’s autonomy. By legalising the procedure of assisted suicide, those who cannot afford to travel to DIGNITAS would be able to end their life with dignity, instead of suffering until their death. The law would indeed still have safeguards in place for the patient by ensuring that the act is “voluntary, clear… and informed”.
However, the counterargument to this is the sanctity of life. It was debated in Parliament that allowing such act to be lawful would diminish the value of life and could lead to a normalisation of suicide amongst the population. It was also mentioned that people may be coerced into the procedure or may hastily opt for assisted suicide when experiencing only temporary pain.
Thus, both sides have valid arguments indeed and this has caused disagreements in Parliament, with the topic being debated in Parliament on numerous occasions in the past decade.
Why Do I Need to Know This?
There is indeed no duty to know and understand this. However, in light of changing values and morals of society, and the steps taken by other nations in regard to the law on assisted suicide (for example Spain’s recent legalisation), it is indeed a talking point. It was reported in a survey for the British Medical Association, that 50% of those surveyed supported a change in the current law, in favour of legalising assisted suicide.
Many people experience terminal illnesses and are therefore left to spend their days suffering without hope. The service that assisted suicide provides is dignity in the individual’s death, a peaceful ending of their life, and an opportunity for loved ones to steadily accept an individual’s wishes.
There is perhaps an unfortunate tendency to overlook the circumstances that others may experience, hence I wish to draw attention to this matter. As Lord Neuberger – a Supreme Court Judge in England and Wales – stated: these “tragic situations… are not as uncommon as some may like to think.” I therefore ask for your mindfulness towards those suffering; the evolving morals of society; and the reflection upon one’s understanding of why would anyone want to die?
Where Can I Get More Information?
If you are experiencing difficulties yourself, please do reach out to any of the following for any assistance at all: