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The problems with Assisted Suicide

more: Articles, Opinion, Articles/Opinion

31st May 2012

Iona Heath writes on the nature of assisted suicide campaigns

BMJ commentary

Iona Heath, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, has written a powerful and compelling argument in the British Medical Journal explaining how campaigns in favour of assisted suicide tend to have an overwhelmingly positive view of individuals. She argues that as so few individuals act in the best interests of others, the legalisation of assisted suicide would further marginalize the most vulnerable.

Dr Heath highlighted her concerns at the impossibility of drafting an assisted suicide law that would sufficiently protect the vulnerable. The influence that one person can have makes legislation very risky. It is not certain to guarantee that a voluntary request for assisted suicide is not in some way coerced. It is likely that many sick and disabled people would have a tendency to feel that they were being a burden to others, and that assisted suicide may create a strong obligation in some circumstances.

Dr Heath argues that with assisted suicide, medicine seems to be offering, “A technical solution to an existential problem.” Grief and death are both inevitable parts of human existence. Doctors can engage in excessive treatment which is ineffective and unnecessary. This risks prolonging life in difficult circumstances, making suffering considerably worse. A more person centred care would help avoid an overabundance of technological interventions. Proper care for the patient avoids the pitfalls of too little or too much healthcare.

The author considers the eagerness for assisted suicide today is surprising given recent events such as the activity of Harold Shipman and the involvement of doctors in state sponsored killings. She has considerable doubt that a clearly regulated law change would alleviate more suffering than it would cause.

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