The debate around legalising assisted dying seems increasingly to centre on the case of suicide tourism; whether people should ‘have to’ travel to clinics in Switzerland where they can legally end their lives. Whilst this is undoubtedly an important trend, it is merely a side show to the real issue and masks three important facts about assisted dying.
1 – Very few people travel to Switzerland to end their lives.
In the last 10 years less than 200 people have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives. That’s quite a lot. However, it’s far fewer than the estimated 500 people who commit suicide each year due to a terminal or chronic illness. More importantly, it is completely dwarfed by the 2,000 people who receive some form of illegal assistance from a physician to end their lives each year in this country according to the most recent research. Legalising assisted dying in the UK isn’t about whether or not people have to go abroad to end their lives. It’s about whether the thousands of people who end their lives in this country do so with the protection of a sensible legal framework, or whether they are forced outside the law.
2 – The Swiss law represents an extreme point of view.
Since many people see the ‘problem’ of assisted dying as people having to travel to Switzerland to end their lives, it is easy to see the ‘solution’ as simply important Swiss law to this country. However that fails to recognise that the Swiss law surrounding assisted dying is rather extreme. Not only does it allow foreign nationals to travel to Switzerland to end their lives, but the only legal protection it offers to people receiving assistance to end their lives is that that assistance is not being provided for ‘selfish’ reasons. I for one think that is appallingly lax as it provides little if any protection for the mentally ill or those who, as Dignitas puts it, are merely ‘tired of life’. I very much hope that any UK law would ensure that assistance is only provided for the very best of reasons, such as if a person has already received a terminal diagnosis, and that a police investigation must be conducted before a person is assisted to end their life, not after they are dead. These are not features of the Swiss law, but they could be features of any new UK law.
3 – People who do assist somebody to end their lives abroad are breaking UK law.
The law against assisted dying in the UK is profoundly clear. It is illegal to ‘aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another’. Anyone who has helped another person to end their lives abroad has clearly broken this law; they just haven’t done anything wrong. It is for this reason that it is not found in the public interest to prosecute people, and it’s increasingly hard to see how anyone ever would be prosecuted for breaking the law in this way. However, this seems to leave the law widely open to abuse. Anybody wishing to compel a person to end their life abroad would be breaking the law. However they may be able to count on the protection of a society that is in almost unified agreement that this law should not be enforced. The more we pretend that ‘suicide tourism’ is not a crime in this country, the more we open ourselves up to abuse by the unscrupulous. The only real protection would be a law we could accept and properly enforce.
It’s easy to see why it has become so convenient to bring up the example of Dignitas so often when debating assisted dying. However, doing so obscures too many of the crucial issues. If we want to see a real change in the law we need to change the terms of the debate.
* Simon Beard is a Quaker, a Philosophy student and a Lib Dem from Sevenoaks