‘How can anyone who supports the death penalty argue against assisted dying and abortion on the basis that life is sacred?’ This question is regularly posed (in my view, rightly) to some US right-wingers. But it can also be turned around: how can anyone who opposes the death penalty support assisted dying?
The word ‘execution’ will no doubt have a harsh ring for many supporters of legalising assisted dying. The celebrity sponsors of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the UK, a list which now includes the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, would probably not participate in a campaign to bring back the death penalty.
But the comparison is apt; if liberals believe that the premeditated killing of a human being by the state, even for the best possible reasons, is wrong, then, by definition, assisted suicide, which, after all, amounts to state-approved suicide, must also be judged wrong.
One of the arguments put forward by Britain’s pro-assisted-suicide campaigners is that a majority of the British public support the legalisation of assisted suicide. But that is also true of the death penalty: approximately 60 per cent of Brits would like it reinstated, while 69 per cent support the legalisation of assisted suicide. Should we, on that basis, reinstate the death penalty? Most who oppose the death penalty do so because they believe it is wrong in principle, no matter how many people support it. The same is true of assisted suicide: those who believe it to be wrong do so out of principle.
The methods involved in state executions and assisted suicides are similar. Many were horrified by what happened to Clayton Lockett, a death-row prisoner in Oklahoma, who, following a lethal injection, appeared to regain consciousness 20 minutes later. This was deemed by many to be, in the words of the US Constitution, a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. But why isn’t it considered cruel and unusual to use lethal injections in assisted suicides?