The burdensome should be allowed to seek help to kill themselves

Should assisted suicide be legalised?

Hugh McLachlan
21 September 2015
suicide article.jpg

Flickr/ Quinn Dombrowski. Some rights reserved.The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Selby, has argued along with various other religious dignatories that we should reject the proposal to legalise assisted suicide. However,  their central objection  concerning the pressurising of vulnerable people seems whimsical and arbitrary.

In a letter to the Observer dated 6th September 2015 with regard to the provisions of the assisted dying (No2) bill currently before the House of Commons, they write:

‘If passed, it will directly affect not only those who are terminally ill and who wish to end their lives…. It also has the potential to have a significant impact on other vulnerable individuals: those who belive that they have become burdens to family and carers and feel under pressure to “do the decent thing” and, tragically, those who might be pressured by others to seek a medically assisted death’.

Did the legalisation of, say, homosexual behaviour put pressure on those who  otherwise would have had no interest in it to engage with it? Did it, rather, remove a barrier to those who would otherwise have been unfairly pressurised into refraining from homosexual behaviour by the prohibition?

People are no more likely to feel pressurised into commiting suicide by the legality of assisted suicide than they are by the legality of suicide itself. If such supposed unfair pressurisation were a good reason to retain the illegality of assisted suicide, it would be a good reason for making suicide illegal again, as it used to be. However, it is not a good reason.

There is no more reason to suppose that legalised assisted suicide would put unfair pressure on people to end their lives than to suppose that the legal permissibility of sex and marriage unfairly pressurises people into having sex and getting married.

Furthermore, even if some people were – somehow – led to feel pressurised by the legalisation of assisted suicide into seeking assistance to end their lives, that would not be a good reason for saying that no one should be allowed to have legal assistance to kill himself or herself.

There are laws to protect people from inappropriate pressure to marry or have sex. Similarly, there are laws to protect people from inappropriate pressure on them to commit suicide, whether or not it is assisted suicide. These laws might or might not need to be strenghtened whether or not assisted suicide is legalised.

We should not think of people merely as burdens on others. We should not wantonly and unkindly make people feel that they are burdens to us.  Nonetheless, people often are burdensome. It is patronising to say to people that they can never be a burden and unjustifiably paternalistic to try to ensure that they do not ever act upon the (possibly true) belief that they are one.

People might want to commit suicide for all sorts of reasons. People might require assistance of various sorts to do so for all sorts of reasons. It is a comforting myth but a myth nonetheless that all pain can be alleviated far less removed by medicine. Furthermore, to escape pain is not the only motive that one might have to want to die. To want to cease to be a burden to others is a motive that some people might quite reasonably act upon. 

For instance, I might want to live long enough to be a burden on society and on my loved ones. However, I might not want to live as a burden on them for too long. What business is it of Justin Welby or any one else to say that it is inappropriate to be guided by such motives?

Some people might feel great pressures from the strength of their own desires and the force of circumstances that can find a release in sex and marriage. Similarly, suicide –  whether assisted or not­ – might be for some people a means of release from intolerable pressures such as that created by the thought – the realisation, perhaps – that one is a burden to one’s loved ones.

The legality of suicide is a means of release from rather than a creator of unbearable pressure. The same can expected to be true of legalised assisted suicide. For some vunerable people, the illegality of assisted suicide might put unfair pressure upon them to stay alive.

Should it be legal to help – but not to incite – someone to kill himself? Whether or not people have a moral right to end their own lives when and how they want is not the issue. The question is: given that we are legally permitted to commit suicide, should other people be legally permitted to help us to do so?  Although it is not easy to specify who should be allowed to do so and the circumstances in which they should be allowed to do it, we should give the matter serious consideration. We should not rule it out in principle.


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