Dialoguing about dying: we can do better than assisting suicide

I recently attended a rally outside the Houses of Parliament, organised by Not Dead Yet, Care Not Killing and a variety of other groups opposed to assisted dying during a Parliamentary debate on the topic held in response to campaigning by Dignity in Dying (DiD), spearheaded by various celebrity supporters.

I spent my time engaging with some of its grassroots supporters, easily identifiable by their sweatshirts. There were a number of common themes in the main conversations I had with them, from which I learned much to help understand what motivates them.

Personal trauma

First and foremost, all the supporters I met had joined the campaign after witnessing a protracted and painful death of one or more loved ones. Each recounted in detail how traumatic it has been to watch their relative asking for their suffering to be ended and being unable to help.

They had each determined from their experience that no one else should go through what they had and felt that campaigning for assisted suicide was the best way to ensure that.

Once you have been through such a lived experience of an "undignified death", no amount of reasoned argument about "mission creep" or others feeling a "duty to die" is going to counter the understandable visceral emotion driving support for their cause.

Societal consequences

Secondly, there is the repeated claim that all they are asking for is the "choice" for assistance in ending their lives. Those opposed don’t have to do it, but what right have we to limit their choice?

There is little recognition that medical assistance in suicide would impact the whole healthcare system for everyone.

When I mentioned the case of Christine Gauthier, the Canadian Paralympian offered euthanasia when she requested a wheelchair ramp, their immediate response was, "We think that is awful too."


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I am sure they meant it, but their blind faith that such a thing could never happen here because "our law will be a very tight law" seemed quite naïve to me.

Equally naïve was the conviction that a death from ingestion of a prescribed lethal cocktail would ensure a "dignified" death. My mentioning that in Oregon, not everyone dies from the medication, and of those that do, some take days to die, was not, I think really believed.

Pet topic

The third issue that was raised by everybody I spoke with was that "we wouldn’t let a dog in pain suffer like that, so why do we make people live on in agony?"

I responded by saying, "But we are not animals," but of course we are, as I was quickly reminded, and it became apparent that for many, though not all, supporters of assisted suicide, humans are nothing more than any other animal species was a major part of their belief system.

It was only on the train home, as I was wrestling with how one might more effectively answer the "dogs are treated better" objection, that it hit me that is actually a double-edged sword.

Supporters of assisted suicide frequently play personal autonomy as their ethical trump card: “My death – my choice”. But the poor creature taken to the vet to be put down has no choice in the matter at all. They are taken by those who look after them to have their life ended by the vet.

That is exactly what concerns doctors like myself, who are all too aware of the vulnerability of sick people who are dependent on others, if assisted dying is an option on the healthcare menu. Therein probably lies a better way of tackling the "vet objection", which avoids getting side-tracked into anthropological arguments.

No one I spoke with seemed to appreciate that universal access to palliative care financed totally by the NHS might be an alternative solution to changing the law on medical killing in the United Kingdom. But once medical care has "failed" you in the way it had failed those I talked to, perhaps you are too emotionally scarred to think of anything but getting hold of drugs to end it all, to avoid what you witnessed in one you loved.

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Dr Trevor Stammers is an author and a retired associate professor of medical ethics.

Image credit: Dr Trevor Stammers/X


Showing 8 reactions

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  • Rob McKilliam
    commented 2024-05-04 11:59:07 +1000
    If I were diagnosed with MND – as my late sister was – I think I would take up Wingsuit flying and attempt to break a record of some kind. I would call it ‘living life to the full’, (ie: worshipping God).
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-04 08:03:37 +1000
    mrscracker, terminal sedation (sometimes called palliative sedation, which is a euphemism used by hospices) is a practice of treating intractable suffering by placing the patient into a coma and withdrawing food and water until they die.


    Unfortunately, it can take days for the patient to fall into a coma, since rapid sedation is considered suspicious by authorities.
  • mrscracker
    Mr. Bunyan could you please explain what terminal sedation is? I’m acquainted with palliative care & the use of pain-relieving drugs but what you describe sounds more like euthanasia. Thank you.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-03 14:22:26 +1000
    mrscracker, there’s nothing immoral about treating others with compassion and respect. We don’t force people to undergo chemotherapy or life-saving heart transplants. The same respect should apply to people who don’t want to suffer any longer.

    We euthanize our pets because we understand that terminal sedation is a slow and very uncompassionate way to die.
  • mrscracker
    Death with Dignity, Bodily Autonomy, Pregnancy Termination, Top Surgery, Bottom Surgery, Gender Affirming Care. All are euphemisms we create to allay our conscience.
    If you’re morally comfortable & fully on board with something you use real medical terminology. When you have lingering conscience & reason-based pangs you make up euphemisms.
  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-05-02 22:03:53 +1000
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-02 12:05:35 +1000
    When I adopted my cat, the shelter asked me if I would euthanize her if she was suffering.

    If I answered “no,” they probably would not have allowed me to adopt her.

    It’s disheartening and concerning to see that your views on compassion and love are completely inverted.
  • Trevor Stammers
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-02 11:56:15 +1000