Legalising Death?

By Lorraine Wylie

In April 2013, MS sufferer Marie Fleming lost her Supreme Court challenge to the ban on assisted suicide in Ireland. The court ruled that there is no constitutional “right to die” or to be assisted to do so.  In the UK, Lord Joffe has made several attempts to introduce bills that, if implemented, would make ‘Assisted Suicide’ legal. while Lord Falconer’s “Assisted Dying” bill will be debated in the House of Lords in May. According to one pressure group, there is 80% public support for such a change in the law.  Here Lorraine Wylie examines how Christians respond to a controversial and emotive issue.

While the terms “Assisted Dying” and “Assisted Suicide” may sound interchangeable, there are distinct differences. The former, ‘Assisted Dying’ is not a legal reference.  It is a term used by organisations such as ‘Dignity in Dying’ to convey the message that terminally ill, mentally competent adults have the right to decide when they die and assuming they’ve met strict legal safeguards, the dying patient should be allowed to self administer the drugs that will end their life.  

In March 1998, the US States of Oregon implemented the ‘Death with Dignity Act 1994’. A decade later, 341 people suffering from terminal illness have used the Law to bring life to an end.

While it is not a criminal offence for someone to take their own life, “Assisted Suicide” - helping someone to end their own life - is illegal in both the UK and Ireland and can be punishable by a prison sentence. In some circumstances, assisted suicide is permitted in Switzerland


As the debate continues, it is obvious that this is a subject no one can afford to ignore.  For many in the Church, the standpoint that God alone has the right to determine the boundaries of life is straightforward and unequivocal. However, doctrinal belief is not the only basis for opposing change.  There is the fear that an individual who is ill or vulnerable could feel pressured into ending their life to avoid feeling a burden. 

There is the fear that an individual who is ill or vulnerable could feel pressured into ending their life to avoid feeling a burden.

Dr. Peter Saunders, Chief Executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, covering both the UK and Ireland, is among those who believe that a change in the law would be a huge mistake. Dr. Saunders said, “The abuse and neglect, particularly of older people in the community whether by families, carers or institutions, is real and dangerous. A law that allows the active hastening of death could so easily be exploited.  This is why strong laws are necessary.”

Advocates of changes to the law point to the US state of Oregon where, it is argued that, such fears have been unfounded. They state that, in the past fifteen years, there has been no substantiated record of abuse.

However, Dr. Saunders takes a different perspective.  Using the same time frame he quotes an enormous 450% increase in the number of assisted suicides in Oregon.

“Developments overseas are disturbing. In Switzerland there has been a 700% increase while in the Netherlands the number of euthanasia cases has almost doubled since 2006,” he added.

It is often argued that the right to end a life is a matter for the individual to decide. But, for doctors, active participation goes against fundamental ethics. On entering his profession, Dr. Saunders, like his colleagues, made a vow that was intended to instill confidence in his patients. Even today all young doctors promise, “not to harm the patient or give them poison”. The remainder of the oath, “even if asked may be less familiar but it is no less important. Would a change in the law also require an alteration in the current medical oath? Could patients continue to have full confidence in a doctor’s word?

Society has changed enormously. Greater knowledge and developments in technology have led to better health and longer life. In our youth-oriented world and with so much emphasis on living life to the max, it is easy to forget that death is also part of the cycle and a natural process.

Northern Ireland GP, Roselle Birnie believes that death has become a taboo subject. “Despite the progress in contemporary society we have allowed death to become shrouded in mystery and steeped in fear. Yet, reality is often less frightening. I have witnessed the passing of patients and loved ones. I have to say that, contrary to belief, the majority of people, with the right support network, experience a good death.”

Despite the progress in contemporary society we have allowed death to become shrouded in mystery and steeped in fear.

Still, the question remains: What about those few individuals for whom death will be difficult? Those against changes in the current legislation argue that hard cases do not make good laws.

Dr. Peter Saunders continued, “Once a ‘right’ to assisted suicide or euthanasia is established for restricted groups, it is inevitable that there will be incremental extensions to others through the application of case law in ‘hard’ cases.  Our current law, with its blanket ban does not need changing. The penalties it holds in reserve act as a strong deterrent to those who stand to gain from another person’s death. It also gives discretion to prosecutors and judges to apply mercy in genuinely hard cases.”

Considering the media frenzy surrounding the subject, it would be easy to lose sight of the number of cases actually involved. Dr. Saunders points out, “Persistent requests for euthanasia are extremely rare if people are properly cared for. Our priority must be to make good care – killing pain without killing the patient – accessible to all. This is the best way of safeguarding vulnerable people and addressing patients’ physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs.”

For those immersed in the reality of pain and suffering, statistics are irrelevant. Behind each number is an individual for whom life is no longer bearable. It is these individual tragedies that convince people like Jo Cartwright, Campaigns Manager for the organisation Dignity in Dying, that there must be a change in the current law. The daughter of a Congregational Minister, Jo finds no conflict between her beliefs and her stance on Assisted Dying.She believes that individuals have a right to dignity and that means having choice as to how they die.

“Terminally ill people have no choice,” she said.  “Many are forced to endure enormous suffering against their wishes. It simply isn’t right. Neither should these people be forced to seek help from abroad. I believe a change in the law would spare them the added burden and enable them to die in the familiar surroundings of their home.”

Jo refutes any suggestion that changing the law would leave it open to abuse. “Any alterations would include stringent controls to prevent abuse. It is important to understand that the people we are trying to help are those who have been diagnosed with and are suffering from a terminal illness. They are mentally competent adults who know what they want. We are not proposing a law to assist chronically ill or disabled people to end their life. In that case, we would advocate finding ways to improve life instead of ending it. But where death is inevitable, we want to help people substitute a bad end with a good one.” 

Jo denies any suggestion that the Assisted Dying campaign conflicts with the Christian faith. She says, “Christianity is about compassion and love. Being able to help end the suffering for those in terrible distress and without hope of recovery, is the ultimate act of kindness.”

Changing the law is a major step into unknown territory. Write to us at VOX to share your views ( or VOX Magazine, Ulysses House, 22 - 24 Foley Street, Dublin 1).

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