Would it be moral to legalise Euthanasia in the UK?

The word ‘morality’ seems to be used in both descriptive and normative meanings. More particularly, the term “morality” can be used either (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition 1. descriptively: referring to codes of conduct advocated by a society or a sub-group (e.g. a religion or social group), or adopted by an individual to justify their … Read more

Euthanasia research – concept and value of life, laws, case studies

As we as a general population have aged diseases which were rare only a few decades ago are manifesting themselves. Dementia related conditions, cancer wasting diseases have now reached their peak epidemic proportion. Medical technology has progressed over recent years to a point where bodies can be kept alive by artificial means. As a result … Read more

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: What About Death?

As the practice of intentionally ending one’s life in order to relieve pain and suffering, euthanasia should be an option that is available for all terminally ill patients to utilize. This medical practice refers to the situation where a doctor induces death with a lethal injection requested by a patient who is suffering boundlessly. Though … Read more

The Human Rights Act 1998: Euthanasia

Euthanasia by definition is ‘the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma’ (English Oxford Dictionary, 2016). The word Euthanasia is derived from the Greek meaning of ‘easy death’. It can also be referred to as ‘assisted suicide’. There are two classifications of ways in which … Read more

The multidimensionality and intersection of ethical, medical and political perspectives has brought euthanasia to the center of rigorous debate. While vast literature on euthanasia can be collected, there is no cohesive agreement on the definition of euthanasia itself. For the purpose of this overview, euthanasia refers to voluntary euthanasia whereby expressed consent of the party is required and will be defined in three parts – passive euthanasia, active euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide.

Passive euthanasia is defined by many academics (Fuchs, 1998; Danis, Emanuel, & Silverman, 2009; Fost, 2011) to be the practice of the act of omission by withholding treatment, or by withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. The conventional bioethics doctrine has given passive euthanasia more legitimacy and hence passive euthanasia is viewed with more compassion and less objection as compared to other types of euthanasia. As such, passive euthanasia has been legalized in significantly more countries as compared to the two other types. Active euthanasia is generally defined to be the deliberate act of causing the end of a patient’s life. However, this distinction from passive euthanasia may not be immediately apparent. Hence, this article will use the working definition conceived by Brock (1992).

According to Brock (1992), active euthanasia is defined as having another, usually a physician, providing and administering the means of death, usually a lethal dosage of medicine. Physician-assisted suicide will only require the physician to provide the lethal dosage as the patient will administer the medication his or herself. As a result of its controversial nature and ethical ramifications, active euthanasia continues to be outlawed in many countries over the world and even countries that have legalized physician-assisted suicide may not have legalized active euthanasia. Hence, the research questions in the long essay are –

(a) Does failing to legalise euthanasia violate human rights?

(b) Why does the UK fail to legalise active euthanasia? And

(c) If so, how will outlawing euthanasia affect the different stakeholders in the UK?

In the United Kingdom (UK), passive euthanasia is implicitly allowed. According to National Health Service (England) (2017), “withdrawing life-sustaining treatment because it’s in the person’s best interests can be part of good palliative care and is not euthanasia”. While the healthcare system in the UK does not acknowledge withdrawing life-sustaining treatment as euthanasia, it is important to note that it is indeed passive euthanasia and should be considered duly so. However, active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide continue to be against the law. Euthanasia is considered murder and carries a life penalty. According to the Suicide Act 1961, physician-assisted suicide considered as encouraging or assisting someone to end their life, is a criminal offence and offenders will be liable to a maximum prison term of 14 years. However, one of the most noteworthy arguments in favour of active euthanasia (and hence physician-assisted suicides) is that active euthanasia is in many cases more humane than passive euthanasia, and that there is hardly any significant moral difference between killing and letting die (Rachels, 1975). Many proponents of active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides have also argued that the distinction between passive euthanasia and the other types of euthanasia may not be morally defensible.

Hence, one of the key arguments that arises from this debate would be the violation of human rights – violating the right to live if assisted dying were to be legalised and violating the right to die or die with dignity if assisted dying were to be outlawed (Math & Chaturvedi, 2012; Feinberg, 1978). The debate surrounding euthanasia also lies in the profound disagreement against the innate value of human life. As such, the discussion on human rights is important to understanding the case for euthanasia.

While the issue of legalising active euthanasia has been in the public eye, it has only begun to gain traction and reach heightened public interest in the UK in recent years. This is attributable to more western countries opening its doors to legalising physician-assisted suicide, and subsequently, active euthanasia. To illustrate this, euthanasia has been legalised in Canada in 2015 (Canada Health, 2019) as well as in the state of Victoria in Australia (Health Victoria, 2019) this year. In addition, high-profile cases with terminally ill patients publicly challenging the euthanasia laws on the grounds of human rights and then refused legal permission have brought euthanasia and its ethical ramifications back to the forefront of people’s minds (BBC, 2018). Public opinion in UK has also been shifting towards legalising euthanasia. According to a public opinion poll by My Death, My Opinion (MDMD), 93% of those surveyed considered it acceptable to allow assisted suicide in some circumstances (Bowcott, 2019). However, efforts to change government policy on euthanasia have not been met with success. Hence, the UK stands out peculiarly amongst the European countries that have progressively began to accept and legalise euthanasia. Despite these statistics and the growing support for a change in euthanasia laws, the House of Commons rejected the assisted dying bill by an overwhelming majority (Mason, 2015). Thus, it is imperative that the reasons behind the growing gap between public opinion and the public policy that the government has chosen should be examined.

Moreover, outlawing active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides may have pressing consequences. The debate on euthanasia in UK has been dominated by suicide tourism to other countries. Using publicly available data from Dignitas and figures supplied through private correspondence with Life Circle, both of which are physician-assisted suicide clinics, Dignity in Dying (2019) estimates that one person every 8 days from the UK travels to Switzerland to end their lives legally. It is also estimated that one in five people who travel to Switzerland to end their lives are from the UK (Siddique, 2014). According to the data disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act request by campaign group Dignity in Dying (2014), 7% of all suicides were by terminally ill people, which when applied across the nation would indicate that at least 300 suicides were by the terminally ill. It is argued that the current euthanasia laws, the terminally ill may choose to take matters in their own hands and die in distressing circumstances. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the most vocal groups that are resistant towards legalising euthanasia are the disabled rights movements and religious groups. Many argue that legalising euthanasia will take away their human right to live with dignity due to the many existing stigmas surrounding disability – legalising euthanasia will further this stigma and encourage suicide (Behuniak, 2011). Hence, these ramifications towards different stakeholders should also be thoroughly examined when making the case of euthanasia in the United Kingdom.