For Noel Conway, death is always on the horizon. His only wish is the right to reach it painlessly and a time of his choosing. Since 2014, when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, Conway has campaigned tirelessly for the right to an assisted death. Progress for Conway’s case has been slow, however. In late November 2018, Conway’s appeal to bring the case to the United Kingdom’s highest court was denied, leaving him with no options but altering the law through a Parliamentary vote. Such a vote would be long overdue – a 2015 Populus poll indicated that 82% of Britons would support a bill introducing the right to an assisted death for terminally ill adults. Internationally, support for such laws as more states realise that they cannot tread on the freedom of the weak.
Autonomy and self-ownership are the basic tenets on which liberal democracies stand. Freedoms and rights are not granted by governments - they are recognised and protected by them. Our choices are seemingly unlimited throughout our lives, and it is not unreasonable to question why they disappear when we are our weakest. Opponents of assisted-dying laws argue that they would give way to a slippery slope of suicide; indeed that the desperate and weak would be abused and put in unsafe situations by unscrupulous physicians and profiteers. I argue that the opposite is true. At a person’s weakest, when their suffering is at its greatest, having the freedom to make that ultimate choice is paramount, and revoking it is immoral, unconscionable, and patronising.
At its core, the issue is another variation of the liberty versus safety debate. Opponents of assisted dying believe that individuals cannot be trusted with deciding their own fates, that they would harm society in the long run. The irony of their use of the slippery slope is palpable: if liberal democracies like the United Kingdom refuse to place the freedom of individuals to choose death over suffering before the so-called protection of the state, other freedoms are surely endangered.
Pro-assisted dying arguments are imperfect, however. The most recent, though unsuccessful, attempt to alter the law, proposed by Lord Charlie Falconer in 2014, stipulated that only adults with a terminal illness and six months left to live would be eligible for an assisted death. Though this would constitute a positive first step, it is fundamentally flawed. The six month life expectancy clause, a reflection of the laws passed in several US states, is arbitrary and inhumane – individuals should be able to end unbearable suffering regardless of when physicians expect them to die naturally. Physicians are not infallible – their predictions are not guarantees, and they should not condemn a capable adult to a lifetime of suffering.
The role of the physician, in a wider sense, is also questionable. What, ultimately, is the difference between a doctor supplying the patient with lethal drugs and a doctor dosing the patient with these drugs? Would assisted dying merely be euthanasia by another name? Lord Falconer’s law again leaves much room for improvement. Those who wish to die should have the ability to do so in the privacy of their own homes, without interference from physicians. By loosening regulations on the sale of lethal drugs to adults, politicians would avoid the problem of legislating a right to be killed as opposed to a right to die. This would eliminate an unnecessary on already overstretched doctors and ensure that suffering individuals would take the final step into oblivion entirely of their own volition.
In short, recognition of the right to die is long overdue and politicians must take action not only in the United Kingdom but globally – but the solution is not as simple as it may initially appear.