The evolution of the ‘right to die’

What happens when assisted-suicide campaigners achieve their aims of legalisation? Do they go home and say ‘job well done’? Or do they continue to campaign for euthanasia and assisted suicide to be extended to more and more people?

Here, we need to look to the Netherlands and Belgium rather than the United States, where the practice, if legal in some states, is still controversial. In Belgium yesterday, the senate voted to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill children. Most chillingly, the law allows for officials to make the choice based on what they think the child would want if he or she were able to decide.

In a poll published today in the Journal of Medical Ethics, over half of respondents in the Netherlands (57 per cent) agreed that everyone should have a right to euthanasia, and a similar proportion (53 per cent) agreed that everyone has the right to determine their own life and death. One in four (26 per cent) agreed with the vignette in which a doctor helps an elderly person to die who is tired of living. One in five (21 per cent) agreed with the statement: ‘In my opinion, euthanasia should be allowed for persons who are tired of living without having a serious disease.’ Just over half disagreed (52 per cent), while one in four (25 per cent) neither agreed nor disagreed. Such a change in opinion has taken place after a Dutch citizens’ initiative called Uit Vrije Wil (Out of Free Will) attracted more than 117,000 letters of support in 2010 for its proposal to extend assisted dying to all persons over 70 who are ‘tired of life’.

Voters in Quebec who will soon consider Bill 52, which would legalise euthanasia in the Canadian province, should keep in mind that this is where voluntary-death campaigns are headed, despite the much-vaunted ‘safeguards’. A society that thinks those who are terminally ill and depressed should be given the option to die will logically extend such ‘benefits’ to those who are over 70 or to others who are simply ‘tired of life’.

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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