At what age does the legal position on dying with dignity change?
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Tom Norton from Tasmania asked this question in the Financial Times recently.
He set out the paradox: the legal position seems to be:
1-year-old Charlie Gard should be allowed to die with dignity by avoiding experimental treatment that might – had there been no legal delays – have preserved his life.
67-year-old Noel Conway (facing prolonged disability, suffering and a terrible death) should not be allowed the right to die with dignity as he asks.
A reader intends to go to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland if the time approaches when she will no longer be physically or mentally able to look after herself. She will have to do so far earlier than needed and will do so alone, to avoid legal hassle for her family. The financial cost is minimal compared with nursing care fees and all the horrors of dependence.
Assisted dying is tried and tested in twelve countries
The fears expressed of undesirable consequence – usually by religious fundamentalists – are not borne out by the facts. Assisted dying in several forms is legal in many regions, including five American states, see full list here.
Daniel Finkelstein recently opened his article in The Times by saying: ”Noel Conway wants the right to decide when his life will end and most of us, including the disabled, agree with him”. And later:
“The question is who makes the choice. Am I — or Noel Conway — allowed to make it for myself or will the state make it for me?
“Noel Conway is seeking a simple right, to be allowed to die as he has lived, as a free man. He’s not asking to play God, or have anyone else play God. He’s just saying that he’d rather not suffer avoidable, and unnecessary, anguish as he dies.
“It’s a right — I’m sorry to put it like this, but it’s true — that we wouldn’t deny, that we do not deny, to a cat.
“He doesn’t want to die. He is not choosing to die. He is accepting that he is going to die, and asking for the option of medical help to assist with the means and timing of his death. I think it is unconscionable to say no to him”.
Around 80% support the idea of a change in the law
Most MPs believe that their constituents are quite evenly split on assisted dying. But in fact their constituents are not evenly split. There has been around 80% support for a change in the law for 30 years. Public opinion is consistent and clear and stable.
Polling by Populus showed 86% per cent of disabled people supported the assisted dying reform, broadly in line with the rest of the population (download available)
Advocates for disabled people fear that provision for assisted dying would demonstrate that we do not value disabled people and are not willing to protect the most vulnerable, but that, Finkelstein points out, is not the opinion of most disabled people – see ‘Disabled activists for dignity in dying’.
Religious principles make it impossible to contemplate allowing someone to end their life before it ends naturally.
As Finkelstein says: “That is a choice for them. I am seeking a choice for me. And for Noel Conway”.
The current ‘arbitrary and disturbing mess’ is a lottery, where a person who helps someone to die might know what they are doing, or might not – or who travels to Switzerland with a friend or family member might end up in jail or might not.
Instead of this, a ‘concrete legal and medical procedure’ is sought to permit assisted dying, with careful consideration and legally clear deliberation of the evidence of the various models working well in other countries.