Myths, Falsehoods and the Assisted Dying Bill

Dr Kevin Yuill (@historykev) from the Faculty of Education and Society at Sunderland University reflects on the myths and falsehoods surrounding the assisted dying bill.

This Friday, Parliament will consider Labour MP Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying Bill. Supporters are confident that Parliament, this time, will pass this legislation that, they say, will alleviate suffering in those few terminally ill people that will avail themselves of this option.

Most of the British public seems to approve. But the Bill is promoted using emotive stories of families and friends deaths, leading to irrational conclusions. “When I am in that situation, I want the option of assisted dying”, say many people, having been bombarded with stories in soap operas, films, and newspaper articles.

And that is the secret of the public’s support of legalizing assisted suicide, as it really should be called. It chimes with the anxieties that many feel decades before death is at hand. But this projection creates an unreal scenario. We imagine a sad scene with a person dying in pain, surrounded by helpless relatives and medics sadly shaking their heads, knowing that they can do nothing to alleviate this pain. Or, worse, someone kept alive against their will, hooked up to beeping machines. Their dignity has gone and their wishes are ignored in this cold, inhuman environment. But if the assisted dying bill is passed, they have an option to die with dignity surrounded by loved ones.

As anyone who has debated this subject knows, the public, when they understand what is really at stake, will reject assisted dying, whether they are religious or not. These scenarios and the proposed solution – as well as many of the points made by proponents of assisted suicide – are false.

Most of those who opt for assisted suicides in Oregon – where it has been legal since 1997 (and upon which the Marris Bill is based) are self-willed, independent, and perfectly capable of taking their own lives unaided. Most, like Brittanny Maynard, the 29-year old American woman with Stage 4 brain cancer who killed herself last year, go many months before they are expected to die. Nor is it necessarily dignified as they ingest the same poisons that are deemed “cruel and unusual punishment” by those opposed to capital punishment.

Nor is pain very important in this discussion. Here is where the experience of Oregon is useful. Amidst the reasons why Oregonian opt for an assisted suicide, pain is not even in the top five. Instead, fear of loss of autonomy, of loss of enjoyment of life’s activities, and loss of dignity are the top three. Being a burden come above pain in both the Oregon and Washington (where assisted suicide was more recently legalized).

There are many other false impressions given by proponents of a change in the law. Many protest that the proper term is “assisted dying” rather than assisted suicide. The underlying disease, they say, is killing patients and these patients are not suicidal but are dying. All they want is to control the moment of their deaths.
Under the Marris Bill, people will have to self-administer a lethal dose of poison. To call that anything other than suicide is Orwellian nonsense. Let us at least be honest about what we are discussing. It is prescribed suicide.

Nor is it accurate to say that “The Bill would result not in more deaths but in less suffering” as Dignity in Dying and the Observer have. Strictly speaking, of course, it is true, if we ignore time restraints. Killing or assisting to kill someone only prematurely ends their life and, no doubt, would result in less suffering.

But it is disingenuous in relation to this debate. What the bill will do, according to Dignity in Dying’s own estimations, is to quadruple suicides amongst the terminally ill. They estimate that 300 terminally ill people take their lives each year. If we extrapolate from Oregon the number of people in Britain that would opt for assisted suicide is around 1200 people per year. The Bill will result in many more suicides unless we pretend that someone taking poison to end her life is the euphemistic “assisted dying”.

When some say that “the law is broken” it is worth remembering that there has never been less of a need for legalizing assisted suicide. Medical technology is eradicating painful deaths and though it is not perfect, most people can rest assured of a peaceful death. But, in those occasions in the last hours, days or perhaps weeks of dying when doctors do attempt to prevent suffering, there will be an entirely new set of bureaucratic forms to fill in. Some situations in life are best kept away from the glare of the law.

It is entirely understandable that those facing an imminent death will fear what the future will bring. But, as those in the hospice movement can assure them, the final period of someone’s life, while challenging, can be a rich experience once the patient adjusts to their situation. Whereas death will cure fear of the future, just as it would a headache, the fear and despair understandably felt by those with terminal illness are, unlike the underlying illness, curable.

Resolving the mythology of this debate will ensure that the Marris Bill is defeated and that we do not prescribe suicide.

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