The right to die

The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland are the three European countries that permit assisted suicide for non-terminal illnesses that cause unbearable suffering, taken to include mental suffering.

A 2007 independent survey found that 80 per cent of people supported assisted dying for the terminally ill, but only 43 per cent did for those who are not definitely terminally ill. For many, assisted suicide is a step too far, even for the terminally ill. “This (assisted suicide)is not compassion – it’s abandonment,” says Stephen Drake of the US group Not Dead Yet, which opposes the idea.

In general, the public only approve ending life for those with terminal illnesses, but draws the line on depression and other mental ills. Unlike with most physical illnesses, there are no blood tests or brain scans that can give someone a definitive diagnosis of a psychiatric problem. Also, people with mental illnesses are frequently given different diagnoses at different points in their life, and no one knows if that means their first diagnosis was wrong or their condition has genuinely changed. We still don’t know enough to be able to say how a condition will progress. The US National Institutes of Health has said that the whole system of classifying mental illness is flawed and needs to be based more on neuroscience, and has launched a major research effort to base diagnosis and treatments on the underlying problems at the levels of genes, neurotransmitters and brain circuits.

In reality, Belgian doctors, for instance, know the pitfalls and only a minority of requests are granted to people with mental disorders. At a Belgian psychiatric hospital, they granted 48 out of 100 requests, although only 35 people completed the act. Psychiatrists must believe the person is mentally competent, has had a long-standing wish to die and that there is no prospect of treatment. Typically they have more than one psychiatric diagnosis, which may include depression and a personality disorder.

Common sense tells us that someone in mental anguish, but not terminally ill, could be seen as being in a worse situation than if they had known they had just weeks to live. The misery of mental disorder goes on and on, endlessly. Just having the option of assisted suicide can help. Even if they choose not to take it at least they have had a choice, and if they take the assisted route it is better than a violent, lonely, unplanned death.

These points are disputed by religious groups and disability rights activists. They believe that legalising assisted dying sends a message to people who are disabled, sick or elderly that their lives are worthless. (based on an article by Clare Wilson)

I personally think that this comes under a similar banner to abortion. I can see the danger of some ruthless money-grubbing relative engineering the death of a sick family member for private gain, but on balance I think each individual owns his or her own life, and it is for them to say when that ends and not succumb to the moral scruples of others, especially some religious people, who advocate a morality that they are unwilling to adopt themselves. We have been bullied and manipulated for far too long by churches who subscribe to an all-powerful god who seems unable to stamp out sin, violence, theft, misery, and end of life diseases. My message: mind your own business!

Suggestion: everyone asking for assisted suicide should be assessed by three different doctors, and nothing should be done unless there are three serious requests from the patient to prove they are serious.

  • Owen Bell

    Well said! Provided the appropriate safeguards are in place, everyone has a right to end a life of horrible suffering. There’s nothing ‘pro life’ about forcing people to live lives of misery. Rather, a true respect for life would respect people’s right to make their own decisions.
    This is similar to gay marriage: no one who doesn’t believe in it has to personally support it. But I believe organised religion should stop trying to force the unaffiliated to adhere to their principles. In an increasingly irreligious society, religious beliefs should not determine public policy. Live and let live (or in this case let die.)

    • conservatives believe in freedom and democracy as long as they van pick and choose the various aspects of freedom and democracy.