Should the elderly and the terminally ill who still have the mental capacity to decide whether to end their lives have the right to do so? In recent days there has been an overflowing on the airwaves here of a plethora of viewpoints on the subject. The views range from those who are completely in support, including those who have actually aided either directly or indirectly relatives and friends to commit suicide, to those who are dead set against a change in the UK law that makes it a crime punishable with imprisonment to assist the suicide of another.
There are very ill people for whom death is inevitable and not in the very distant future. At least, not in as distant a future as it appears for many of us who currently enjoy relatively good health. Those who are terminally ill or are suffering from degenerative illnesses which get progressively worse, with the prospect that as the effects of the disease worsen the suffering is increased. Do these people not suffer prolonged agony as doctors strive to prolong their lives with the full knowledge that the patient will inevitably die in the end? What are the benefits of prolonging the suffering of a terminally ill person? Is it humane to let dying people linger in their suffering? Even ordinary animals are routinely "humanely" euthanized by veterinarians in order to avoid prolonged suffering for the animal. Why should the same principle not apply to humans, especially if the person concerned actually desires it?
With the traditional approach of prolonging life at all costs, the process of dying is long drawn out and the dying person suffers unnecessarily for an extended period. Helpless relatives are forced to witness the suffering of their loved one, which causes untold harrowing anguish for the relatives themselves, whereas in the end the inevitable death must still occur. Would it not have been more humane for the ill person, while still of sound mind, to have had the opportunity to ask for his life to be ended voluntarily, thereby avoiding the suffering for himself and the anguish for his family, who will then be able to carry on with their lives in the knowledge that their loved one did not suffer?
One of the counter arguments is that to allow assisted suicide is to create a slippery slope, down which many people will slide including those who will become victims of the greed of others. It is feared that some relatives will seek to get rid of ill relatives from whom they wish to inherit property, persuading them by whatever means to choose the suicide option. Another powerful argument is put forward by disabled people, who fear that their lives will become devalued and that there could be psychological pressure put upon them to consider ending their lives. Further, it is strongly argued against assisted suicide that the emphasis should be on the improvement of the quality of palliative care for the dying, i.e, to focus on the provision of care that alleviates the pain and the suffering.
While I do not oppose the idea that efforts at improving palliative care should be pursued, the right to avoid the suffering involved in the dying process should not be denied those who wish to avoid it. Improving palliative care for everyone does not seem to me an expedient use of resources, since ultimately the terminally ill person will inevitably die. I previously shared the view that all human life is sacred and that we should not have the right to make the decision regarding when we should die. But having carefully considered the arguments for and against, I am persuaded that giving people who are old and infirm, those who are terminally ill but still of sound mind the right to choose when to die, is the civilised and sensible thing to do. Those who wish for their lives to be ended should be allowed to die, provided they meet certain strict criteria. If there is concern that unconscionable relatives might try to take advantage of a system that permits assisted suicide to knock off relatives who stand in the way of their inheritance, this is one of the more important aspects on which the legal minds tasked with drawing up the legal framework should focus. It is important for assisted suicide to be tightly legally pinned down, offering a good dignified death to those who wish it, while at the same time protecting the vulnerable from relatives who might wish to get rid of them.