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Right to die: does the law need to change?

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The cases of Tony Nicklinson and Martin, the men recently denied the right to assisted suicide by the High Court, has reignited the debate on this controversial issue.  There have been a number of similar cases in the past, almost always reaching the same outcome; the pleas of victims of terminal conditions, such as locked-in syndrome or motor-neurone disease, being all but ignored.

While it seems like a straightforward moral issue – how can those that genuinely wish to die rather than continue in what they feel to be an undignified, pointless and painful existence be denied this choice? – the implications of requests such as Mr Nicklinson’s reach far beyond the present case. There are valid arguments both for and against assisted suicide and, although individuals like Mr Nicklinson are clearly decided in their wishes, there are legal and moral repercussions to be considered if he is to be granted the right to decide when he is to die.

The most obvious argument for assisted suicide is the consideration of the wishes of the affected person; people should have the right to control their own body and life, as long as they are of sound mind and do not abuse any other person’s rights. However, the strength of this argument acting in favour of euthanasia also, unfortunately, gives strength to its counter-argument. Termed the ‘slippery slope’ argument, one of the main reasons against assisted suicide is the idea that once the healthcare service and government agrees to killing its own citizens, a dangerous precedent is set and lines become crossed and blurred.

Principally, the argument in support of assisted suicide stated that those involved should be of sound mind and their actions should not abuse the rights of others; the concern, then, is that voluntary euthanasia will gradually lead to non-voluntary and then involuntary euthanasia. For example, it is feared that very ill or severely disabled people may feel pressured to request euthanasia so that they are not a burden to their family, or that others may force them to request it. There are also concerns that legalising euthanasia may discourage research into curing or relieving terminal illnesses, or patients may choose euthanasia after being wrongly diagnosed by doctors.

There are also religious and medical ethics arguments that prevent assisted suicide from becoming legally allowed and, while these may seem irrelevant when compared to the wishes of a suffering human being, they demonstrate the far-reaching consequences that would likely occur if the law was to be overturned.  The Judge in the ruling similarly lamented that "Tony’s and Martin’s circumstances are deeply moving. Their desire to have control over the ending of their lives demands the most careful and sympathetic consideration, but there are also other important issues to consider…to do as Tony wants, the court would be making a major change in the law. To do as Martin wants, the court would be compelling the DPP to go beyond his established legal role."

Cases such as Mr Nicklinson’s are heartbreaking, and it is a terrible shame that these matters can’t be judged simply on a case-by-case basis; the law may need to eventually change, but the potential dangers of legalising assisted suicide are simply too high a risk for it to be allowed at present. Perhaps once the right safeguards have been put in place, to protect people like Mr Nicklinson, then he and others in his position can be granted the right to the peace that they deserve.




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