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Why assisted dying?

The theory goes like this: what Dignity in Dying really wants is an assisted suicide free-for-all, a Martin Amis style dystopia; but we realise that’s not going to happen any time soon so we campaign for something more palatable and achievable (assisted dying for terminally ill mentally competent adults); however, this is only the first step in what will be an inevitable slippery slope towards “death on demand”. This move will happen (so the theory goes) because the arguments for assisted dying (for terminally ill mentally competent adults only) could equally apply to assisted suicide (where those who are not terminally ill are assisted to die); if society accepts the arguments for assisted dying, it is claimed, legalised assisted suicide is inevitable.

Reasons why this is not the case include:

  1. The theoretical ‘slippery slope’ has not happened anywhere where assisted dying legal. For instance, in the American State of Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal since 1997, there have been no attempts to widen the law.
  2. The public supports the arguments for assisted dying for terminally ill people, but rejects assisted suicide for the non-terminally ill. The 2007 British Social Attitudes Survey found 80% support for assisted dying but only 45% of people thought this should be extended to people who are not terminally ill. Accepting the principle of assisted dying does not mean you accept the principle of assisted suicide.
  3. Assisted dying and assisted suicide are ethically different. The arguments for assisted dying do not support an unfettered ‘right to die’. Supporting assisted dying does not mean you support people being able to choose death over life. It means you believe that someone who is terminally ill, whose death is imminent and inevitable, should be able to control the manner and timing of that death if they are suffering unbearably.

Dignity in Dying’s argument for a change in the law is about choice and control. Choice and control over an inevitable death which may result in unbearable suffering. While some may be confused about what we campaign for (and I hope this will help to clarify our position), I fear that those who oppose what we do intentionally muddy the waters, because it would be very hard to win an argument opposing choice and control for suffering adults over their imminent deaths.