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Assisted dying - a question of misplaced trust

By Mal Fletcher - posted Tuesday, 22 July 2014

On Friday the House of Lords will debate legislation which would, if passed, make assisted dying legal in the UK.

The argument over assisted dying and its bedfellow, euthanasia, is not a new one.

For centuries, philosophers, ethicists and theologians have debated whether an individuals has the fundamental 'right' to commit suicide. The idea of legally empowering another party to assist in the process, to actually inject a chemical that ends one's life, is an extension of that debate.


In our time the issue has scaled the walls of cloistered academia, to become very much a real world problem – or opportunity, depending on your point of view. This is partly because advances in medicine and medical technologies have made longer life a reality for most people in the developed world.

Not only are we able to live longer, however. We are also around long enough to face as yet unconquered illnesses of mind and body. Debilitation possibly seems more offensive to us today, too, because we place great faith in technology and pharmaceuticals and their capacity to deliver quality of life to the end.

In recent years, the debate on the right-to-die sometimes appears to have taken on an air of inevitability. We often read of celebrities, politicos and other public figures who are convinced that assisted dying is the most compassionate way forward for some people.

This week, church leaders including former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey and South African cleric Desmond Tutu have joined those calling for right-to-die laws.

They have done so largely as a result of witnessing firsthand or hearing reports about individual cases in which it appears assisted dying legislation may have alleviated suffering.

A number of prominent British celebrities have already announced that they will be seeking an assisted death when, in their own estimation, they are no longer able to function independently or to enjoy a certain quality of life. In these cases, right-to-die is becoming more of a lifestyle choice than a concession to those who suffer.


Compassion must, of course, temper discussions on anything involving human suffering. Yet, while enshrining into law the right to assisted death may sound very tolerant, it is arguably a ticking time bomb, socially and ethically.

Its potential impact on our social structure and the wellbeing of future generations should not be underestimated. Nor should the potential for frail human agencies, be they institutions or individuals, to turn good intention into bad practice.

This is what motivates people like Liz Carr, the UK's best known disabled actress, to speak against assisted dying legislation. She has urged parliament to throw out the proposed new laws, saying that she doesn't trust doctors with extra power to prescribe lethal drugs.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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