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Do we have a right to die?

Updated Wednesday, 27th January 2016

Do we have a right to die? What are the moral and ethical implications of assisted suicide?

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If you have been affected by the issues in this programme, you can call Samaritans free from any phone on 116 123 (it will not appear on your phone bill), email, or visit to find details of your nearest branch.  The Motor Neurone Disease Association also provides support to people affected by motor neurone disease in England, Wales and NI - 03457 626262 or visit The Motor Neurone Disease Association.

Debate concept with two people discussing topic Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Brad Calkins | Do individuals have a right to die? There are a welter of complicated issues around this apparently simple question, such as the distinction between allowing someone to die (by withdrawing treatment) and enabling them to die (by intervening). Let us put that to one side and consider whether someone suffering from a terminal illness, with no chance of a cure, who is suffering, and who is of sound mind and who has expressed a wish to die, should be allowed to seek assistance in dying.

The strongest argument for an affirmative answer is patient autonomy: in matters that affect us, and do not harm other people, we should be allowed to decide for ourselves. In matters of importance in our lives we have the right to make our own minds up. We can decide what career to pursue, where to live, who to marry. Why should we not be allowed to decide when our lives should end?

There are arguments on the other side too. These are the two that seem to me strongest. The first is an argument from unintended consequences: once the state allows the elderly and infirm this option then people who feel they are a burden might feel pressure to take it. Even worse, unscrupulous relatives, perhaps with their eye on an inheritance, might put pressure on someone to take it. There is a slippery slope: we start with some defensible cases, but soon the circle expands, and we end up with a situation that is much less morally clear.

The second concerns the kind of society we want to be. Do we want to take care of the elderly and infirm, making them feel valued, and investing in palliative care? Or the kind of society that shuffles them off to clinics so that they can dispose of themselves?

Here is a final thought. At the moment, people are able to obtain physician-assisted death if they are wealthy enough to pay the clinic’s fees and travel to Switzerland. Is the stable door already open? By disallowing physician-assisted death in this country, are all we doing is ensuring that it remains a privilege of the wealthy?

What are your thoughts? Have your say using the comments section below:

PLEASE NOTE: This discussion hub is intended for discussing the issues surrounding assisted suicide and the right to die, please do not use it for personal attacks on any individuals – either those featured in the programme or others using the hub. Any comments along this line will be removed.





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