Assisted dying – execution by doctor?

The similarities between assisted dying and the death penalty are striking.

‘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?

Hold on a second, an advocate of assisted suicide might say – doesn’t assisted suicide have the aim of reducing suffering? Perhaps. But, as the reports prepared for Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act demonstrate, the alleviation of pain is not among the top five reasons for people opting for assisted deaths. Capital punishment, it can be persuasively argued, alleviates suffering in that it brings ‘closure’ to grieving relatives of the victim(s) of the crime being punished. Is the suffering of these victims of horrendous crimes any less legitimate than the suffering of those with less than six months to live?

Yes, the assisted-suicide advocate might counter, but isn’t assisting someone’s death about autonomy? Well, read the Assisted Dying Bill carefully; two doctors – not the patient – would have the final power to decide who lives and who dies. Doctors, who are licensed by the state, would essentially become executioners. No wonder the majority of them oppose the Assisted Dying Bill.

Of course, the Assisted Dying Bill differs from the death penalty, some will say, in that it’s voluntary. But many state executions are also voluntary; 11 per cent of all US executions since 1977 involved ‘volunteers’ – prisoners who waived their right to appeal (tellingly, it is referred to as ‘state-assisted suicide’).

Amnesty USA, which campaigns vigorously against the death penalty, includes this reasoning in its arguments against the death penalty: ‘The death penalty can never be “voluntary”. A decision taken by someone on death row to end his or her life through execution can never be consensual. Moreover, it cannot disguise the fact that the state is involved in a premeditated killing.’ Yet Amnesty International approved the inclusion of a leaflet from Dignity in Dying in its UK magazine. Is this not blatant hypocrisy? Why is assisted suicide any less a ‘premeditated killing’?

The decision-making process by which people are given the death penalty in the US is in many ways fairer than that proposed by the Assisted Dying Bill. To give a convict the death penalty requires agreement by a jury of 12 men and women after which there are still numerous chances to appeal. Little wonder the average time between sentencing and execution in the US in 2011 was 16.5 years. With the Assisted Dying Bill, however, the assisted-dying sentence is passed by one person, signed by two doctors, and carried out in a minimum of two weeks.

We might also point to the irreversibility of both processes. One of the arguments against the death penalty is that mistakes might be made; it simply isn’t safe. This is equally true of assisted suicide, both in terms of prognosis and of those vulnerable to the vagaries of assisted-dying verdicts.

‘Assisted dying involves only the terminally ill’, some will say. But on what basis are terminally ill people judged to be better candidates than others for state-assisted dying? Because their lives are less valuable than the lives of others who should not be given help to die? Less valuable than child rapists and murderers? If we are allowing lives to be taken because they are wretched, surely those rotting in prison for unspeakable crimes merit less consideration than the terminally ill.

Most importantly, both the death penalty and assisted dying concern an important principle. If we are to place value on every human life – an important marker of civilisation – then neither the death penalty nor assisted dying can be justified. If we go down either road, we sacrifice something of our humanity. This is why I passionately oppose both the death penalty and the legalisation of assisted suicide.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland. His latest book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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