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‘Dignitas’ and Britain’s fear culture

Could The Royal College's vote spark a flame for long-awaited legal reform? Source: Alberto Biscalchin (via Flickr)
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Could The Royal College's vote spark a flame for long-awaited legal reform? Source: Alberto Biscalchin (via Flickr)

By Hannah Newberry

The Royal College of Physicians voted on Thursday regarding Britain’s attitude towards assisted dying – an issue that permeates the moral values in every state and highlights the differences in how we approach issues that rely heavily on contentious ethics. A position of ‘neutrality’ won the majority vote against expectations – meaning that only 43% of the vote was content with current British law. We are renowned for our rigidity in this area in comparison to more lenient states like Switzerland – so is this vote likely to open the doorway to extensive discussion on assisted dying that’s worthy of parliamentary time? A bold statement was made that, ‘Britain continues to treat buying someone a ticket to Dignitas in Switzerland as conspiracy to murder’. This begs the question as to whether there is a legitimate aim behind punishing people who want to die or people who want to help them for compassionate reasons, or if this is an increasingly outdated way to treat an autonomous individual. Are our laws a waste of time when we could be convicting people who commit the same acts with malicious intent?

In my opinion, before we address the issue of euthanasia and discuss whether it should either be legalised or reformed considerably, we need to look at how it would fit within our own legal system. Britain operate largely on a ‘fear culture’ conglomerate that refuses to look at ways we can effectively regulate assisted dying in this country due to the potential for error. However, in a society that values the freedom of speech and individualism inherent in most western cultures, it seems odd that we fall behind on this debate, to a similar degree that Ireland do with regards to abortion reform.

In order to work out how legalisation would fit, we would need to look at the arguments Britain use to justify a total ban on assisted suicide currently. The main issue is where we would draw the line with ‘legalisation’ – which is a hugely flawed yet widely condoned reason for parliament to refuse a debate. It is often felt that to legalise ‘assisted suicide’ would encourage people to end their own lives, give healthcare practitioners too much power to the point where they could ‘play God’ and elude to instances such as widespread euthanasia exhibited in instances such as Nazi Germany. But it’s ridiculous to think realistically that we’d ever consider a gradual move to Switzerland’s attitude without heavy regulation. Instances such as the Nazi regime that are used to scare people into being content with the current law doesn’t differentiate between voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia (two very different concepts) and assumes that law played a role in those events in the first place.

Britain’s reconsideration of its assisted dying policies would be advantageous for several reasons – and I advocate for the majority vote that suggests we need to open debate now. Accepting ‘assisted suicide’ as an aspect of life now we are medically advanced enough to enforce it would prevent underground euthanasia practices – just because you would be charged with a criminal offence for helping someone die if they ask you to, does not necessarily mean you wouldn’t do it at home through means that may be more painful, more prolonged and more traumatic. Legalisation would encourage discussion with doctors, to allow people to act of their own will in the safest and most monitored way possible without punishing people who don’t intend to cause harm – it’s a colossal waste of court time and expense. It also opens up the doctor/patient relationship to a more effective dynamic. Being able to discuss your options freely with a person who has a duty to assist you while considering your views may help in terms of identifying why people want to end their lives, therefore encouraging more support for mental health funding and not treating suicide as an ‘opt-out’ as many people are guilty of doing. It is important to realise that legalising assisted suicide would not necessarily mean many claims are allowed to proceed, but merely eradicates the taboo of it; a taboo that serves no purpose other than keeping the law stagnant and shying people away from challenging the irrationality of it.

Britain should work with the Royal College’s verdict to open a line of communication with the public about how they want their own lives to be regulated. It would be an emphatic step towards respecting the public’s views about how they wish to be treated, while also appreciating that you don’t have to ‘accept’ the concept of suicide to admit that your justice system has failed to prevent euthanasia thus far anyway, so the ‘culture of fear’ we currently have has not proven a success.

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