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There is no ‘safe’ way to legalise euthanasia

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are dangerously naive about ‘assisted dying’.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics UK

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For the first time in history, both main candidates in a UK General Election are openly in favour of legalising assisted suicide or euthanasia (ASE). Whether Labour or the Conservatives win in July, the Suicide Act 1961 will likely be called into review.

Last week, prime minister Rishi Sunak was asked by reporters at the G7 summit in Italy if he would vote for a change in the law on ‘assisted dying’. He replied: ‘I’m not opposed to it, in principle, and it’s a question of making sure the safeguards are in place and are effective.’

This may be a moot point, given that Sunak is trailing Labour leader Keir Starmer by 20 points in the polls. Besides, Sunak’s position was carefully couched. Rather than giving his full-throated support, he said he is ‘not opposed’. But that didn’t stop Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, from being able to say that, whoever gets in, ‘neither are opposed to reform’ of the UK’s current ban on ASE.

Perhaps the one thing we know about the infamously slippery Starmer is that he has a track record of supporting ASE. In March this year, he said was personally in favour of legalisation and he promised that MPs would get a free vote on it in the next parliament. Still, even he said that any change in the law must be accompanied by ‘safeguards with teeth to protect the vulnerable’ from abuse. These imagined safeguards are certainly doing a lot of heavy lifting. But could they actually work?

Looking at the evidence, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the only ‘safeguard’ that really works or lasts is the present law, which prevents ASE entirely. In every country where ASE is legal, the safeguards have fallen rapidly and initially low numbers of assisted deaths have surged.

Just look at the example of Australia, where ASE is largely legalised. Since legislation was passed in 2017, we have heard a constant clamour for more ‘improvements’ in the law, as pro-euthanasia organisation Go Gentle Australia disingenuously phrases it. What this really means is expansions of the current eligibility criteria. Last week, Australian publication the Age complained that, in the state of Victoria, many of the 68 safeguards that had reassured Victorians that ASE would be safe ‘are now obsolete and severely limit access’. The Age insisted that doctors should be allowed to initiate conversations about euthanasia and called for the removal of other ‘unnecessary hurdles’ to ASE. It is not difficult to see how this could lead to vulnerable people being pressured into accepting an assisted death.

Even in the US state of Oregon – which proponents of ASE like to hold up as evidence that safeguards work – the minimum period between a request for an assisted suicide and a patient’s death was reduced from 14 days to 48 hours in 2021.

Everywhere that ASE has been legalised, the eligibility criteria has ended up expanding. As psychiatrists Mark Komrad and Annette Hanson note in the Psychiatric Times this month, ASE legislation begins ‘with the “low-hanging fruit” of end-stage or terminal illness and gradually broadens’ to encompass other non-physical illnesses or conditions.

In Colorado, there have been cases where people have been helped to die because of anorexia. Dutch law similarly allows ASE for a variety of non-physical ailments, extending even to allow the killing last month of a physically healthy 29-year-old who suffered from severe depression. In the Netherlands in 2010, there were two cases of ASE involving psychiatric suffering. In 2023, there were 138, making up 1.5 per cent of the 9,068 euthanasia deaths.

In Canada, ASE was legalised in 2016 under the medical assistance in dying (MAID) programme. This was initially only intended for people whose deaths were ‘reasonably foreseeable’. But a court decision forced the government to expand its criteria effectively to all those with a permanent disability.

Safeguards simply do not work, even when they supposedly have ‘teeth’. When legalised, ASE rapidly turns death into a form of treatment for anyone deemed to be living an ‘inconvenient’ life – from the mentally unwell to the physically disabled.

The only good news is that, after 4 July, there will be a debate both in and outside of parliament. We should use this opportunity to counter the emotional appeals of our political class with the tragic realities of places where ASE is legal. Legalising assisted suicide is not so much a slippery slope as a moral precipice.

Kevin Yuill is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Sunderland and CEO of Humanists Against Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (HAASE).

Melanie Phillips and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation

Melanie Phillips and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation

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Topics Politics UK

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