Skip to content

A metaphor too far – the muddled messaging of assisted dying opponents

Greg Judge disabled activist for Dignity in Dying
Greg Judge, coordinator of Disabled Activists for Dignity in Dying, took part in a recent debate on assisted dying.

I recently listened to a debate at Leicester University on assisted dying, featuring Dignity in Dying Campaign Officer Greg Judge and Dr Peter Saunders from Care Not Killing . What struck me most was the mixed and contradictory arguments from Dr Saunders – and more widely those who oppose assisted dying, which in fact highlight the need for a change in the law.

The ‘irrelevance’ of assisted dying for the terminally ill

Dr Saunders, in trying to prove the irrelevance of this issue, stated that an overwhelming majority of people who are terminally ill in this country would not choose to have an assisted death. The evidence from Oregon shows this to be the case as only 0.2% of deaths per year are assisted. This has remained the case (around 60-70 terminally ill people a year) for over fifteen years and can roughly be extrapolated to around 1000 assisted deaths per year in the UK.

One of the safeguards in Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill is that the patient has to bring up the subject of their own volition, so the majority of terminally ill people would not have an assisted death but the option would be there for those who would like to discuss it.

A broken law that doesn’t need to be fixed? 

The evidence given for the current law working is that “very, very small numbers” are going to Dignitas in Switzerland. If low numbers are a barometer of a workable law then this is more good news for Oregon. However Dr Saunders does not like Oregon and one of the reasons he gives is incredibly contradictory.

He cites that the “key witness is dead” as being a fault with Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. But compare the law he supports in the UK with the law he opposes in Oregon:

In Oregon their law allows for doctors to confirm diagnosis, competence and to investigate if any dying person is coerced by a family member. The investigation happens prior to any assistance given to someone who wants the choice of an assisted death.

In the UK, where assistance to die remains illegal, this is not the case. Care Not Killing is happy with the Department of Public Prosecution’s guidelines on amateur compassionate assistance to die – where someone can be deemed to have acted out of compassion and forgiven after the event (incidentally this was not their position four years ago before the guidelines were implemented ). This has undoubtedly been a welcome development for people such as Andy and Peter Squires, but it is not adequately protecting vulnerable people as, to mirror Dr Saunders’ unfounded accusations towards Oregon, the ‘key witness is already dead’.

He is happy with the post-investigative situation in the UK, but it then becomes a reason to attack the legislation in Oregon where, sensibly, the investigation happens while the person is still alive. If Dr Saunders is worried about there being no key witness, why does he support the current law?

Confused, misleading analogies

The confusion reaches breaking point with the following analogy –

The speed on a motorway is 70MPH per hour. You cannot drive at 120MPH if you feel stressed, however if you are speeding because your child is sick then no one will prosecute.

Once again it is almost an example which supporters of assisted dying could use in favour of change. Earlier Dr Saunders had ridiculed the criteria of the Bill by propositioning:

‘if we legalise assistance to die for terminally ill, mentally competent people then why would we not support the same legislation for those with dementia, or suffering from mental health issues, or even children’.

The point being made here is that a “blanket prohibition” is the only answer, and that there can be no distinctions made in law. However, this would slightly skewer his own analogy if we apply his argument to the idea of a speed limit.

If we do not allow a stressed person to drive at 120 MPH then following the ‘blanket prohibition’ logic we need to ban all forms of driving, regardless of speed limit. If there are a few ‘hard cases’ where a mother needs to rush her sick child to hospital, she is able to make the arrangements by herself to purchase an illegal car from overseas (which may or may not function) and only if she has enough money. If the possibility of her child getting sick is greater than your average child, she would most likely have to start this process earlier for her own peace of mind. Halfway through her journey to the hospital she is at risk of being arrested and even if she makes it to the hospital she can still be prosecuted for driving a car. The reason she is told that there cannot be any cars on the road is because if we enacted a law which legalised a speed limit up to a certain point (which a majority would acknowledge as fine), then people would get used to the idea of driving fast and this would ultimately lead to an autobahn, in which being stressed would be an accepted criteria for speeding.

Of course another situation which could arise would be that if her child was sick, then she could call an ambulance which legally can break the speed limit while providing professional medical assistance to her child. But of course this would cross a ‘natural frontier’…

“…every conceivable reason for opposition is being thrown out even if it contradicts earlier assertions.”

I was confused to say the least after listening to an opponent of assisted dying admit that the number of people having an assisted death would be low and that a situation in which the ‘key witness is dead’ cannot continue. It feels as if every conceivable reason for opposition is being thrown out even if it contradicts earlier assertions. The atmosphere around the opposition appears muddled and confused, as you would expect from an argument centred on the ‘slippery slope’, widely regarded as a fallacy for some time.

It seems every negative article on Lord Falconer’s Bill will start with the concession that the majority of the public support it and it will eventually become law. Opponents know that they cannot ignore the evidence for much longer and it’s beginning to show in their weak arguments.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction of the evening was this and the note I’ll end on – “You can’t trust doctors,” said Peter Saunders, adding “trust me, I’m a doctor”.