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Here we go again - Terminally ill opt for suicide by starvation

more: Articles, Opinion, Articles/Opinion

10th March 2009

We shouldn't allow ourselves to be panicked into legalising euthanasia because of the wishes of a self-reliant and determined minority

An article in the Sunday Times (8 March) proclaims “Terminally ill opt for suicide by starvation”. If you stopped there, you might think that there were people starving themselves to death across Britain rather than dying a natural death. When you read on, however, you see that these allegations are being made by an organisation that calls itself 'Friends at the End' (FATE) – the Scottish version of our own Dignity in Dying, which itself is the re-branded Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

This group has, we are told, sent out a booklet entitled “A Hastened Death by Self-Denial of Food and Drink” to around 30 people in Britain during the last four months. Let's pass over the ethics of publishing material like this – or indeed whether it would qualify for prosecution under the Suicide Act of 1961. In the last four months around 200,000 people have died in Britain, and we are told that 30 people have asked for the booklet – not starved themselves to death, just asked to read about it. These figures provide an indication of just how widespread is the desire among terminally ill people to stop eating and drinking in order to kill themselves.

We are dealing here with activists, not with doctors and patients as a whole. One of the people who starved herself to death is described as “a firm believer in euthanasia”. The overwhelming majority of terminally ill patients aren't. They want to live and, if they have to die, they want to die with good symptom relief and good care. The handful of doctors who are referred to in the article are members of FATE, among them the well-known Michael Irwin, who has achieved notoriety from helping people to go to Switzerland to commit suicide. They are not typical of the medical profession.

The plain fact is that there will always be people who want to take their own lives rather than die of natural causes. But they are a tiny minority and their inclinations are no reason to change a law which, however inconvenient it may be for a few, protects the great majority of seriously ill people from becoming pressured, at least as much by their own feelings of guilt at the burdens they are imposing as by others, to end their lives prematurely. This is a classic tactic of the pro-euthanasia lobby which we are seeing regularly and which should be recognised for what it is – an attempt to portray the exceptional as the normal. We wouldn't stop travelling by air because of a handful of air accidents; and we shouldn't allow ourselves to be panicked into legalising euthanasia because of the wishes of a self-reliant and determined minority of terminally ill people.

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