Stephen Hawking, the well-known theoretical physicist who has suffered from motor neurone disease for much of his life, has been in the news this week after speaking out in favour of assisted dying. Assisted dying is where a terminally ill person is helped to end their life by another person, usually a doctor or sometimes a relative. Hawking is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying:
"Those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their own life and those that help them should be free from prosecution".
Assisted dying is illegal in the UK though over recent years there has been increasing debate as to whether the law should be changed, this increased interest has been the result of some high profile cases in which those who wish to utilise assisted dying have sought legal guarantees that people that help them to die would not be prosecuted.
I am strongly in favour of a change in the law to permit assisted dying. There are undoubtedly many terminally ill people who would benefit greatly from the reassurance that would be provided by knowing that they could take control of the timing and manner of their own death and that anyone who assisted them would not be prosecuted. I have thought a lot about this since my diagnosis in 2011, to me the process of dying is more frightening than the idea of death itself.
The main argument against assisted dying seems to be the very valid concerns that vulnerable people could be coerced into consenting to have their lives ended or that some people might even use assisted dying as a cover for murder. These concerns could, I believe, be addressed through the implementation of a comprehensive system of safeguards. These could include restricting the right to assisted dying to a subset of terminally ill people chosen using criteria that provide the highest level of confidence that the wishes they express are really their own. Any law would also have to guarantee the right of medical professionals to decline to be involved in assisted dying if it is not aligned with their personal beliefs or ethics.
Another argument that is put forward by some is one based on religious grounds. I respect the right of others to hold religious beliefs and to use these to shape the way they live. However a change to the law would not force anyone to utilise assisted dying, a person with religious beliefs would be under no pressure to opt to end their life this way if they were to find themselves suffering from a terminal illness. They would, therefore, be completely free to follow their beliefs. As an atheist, I object strongly to other people trying to impose their religious beliefs on me, I respect their right to choose but ask them to respect my right too.
Another argument I have seen advanced against assisted dying is that palliative care has now advanced to the point where nobody needs to endure a painful and distressing end. I spoke to a nurse from our local hospice about this. She works day in and day out with people who are dying. She told me that even with the very best of care she could not say that people always had deaths free from pain and suffering. There could, she said, be no guarantees.
Assisted dying is legal in a number of countries around the world. According to the campaign group 'Dignity in Dying', the evidence from these countries shows that assisted dying laws with appropriate safeguards effectively address the concerns noted above.
If you are interested in supporting the 'Dignity in Dying' campaign for a change in the UK law you can find their website here.