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Artillery Row

Language and assisted suicide

Let’s not soften language for political ends

A new investigation by the Times reveals that a Canadian man has been supplying suicidal young people in Britain with poison to take their own lives. Kenneth Law set up websites that allowed vulnerable Brits to purchase a lethal substance without authorities suspecting the scheme, and offered advice on how to ensure that death occurs. Four suicides in the UK have been linked to Law’s activities — an unspeakable tragedy for the families involved. “Hundreds” more people are thought to have obtained the substance.

The thought of suicidal people being supplied the means for suicide is sickening, particularly to anyone who has personal experience with suicide. Such actions run contrary to the compassionate ethic our society ascribes to on this issue. Citizens and professional organisations alike counsel and support people who feel their lives aren’t worth living not to give up. We do not give people at the edge of the proverbial ledge a push. It is shocking that bad actors like Kenneth Law can reach and manipulate despairing people.

In the context of wider debate about the end of life in the UK, it’s worth noting that there’s no material difference between the tragic deaths Kenneth Law has facilitated and the deaths “assisted dying” campaigners want to make legal in the UK. Both involve suicide: a person ingesting a lethal substance to end their life. The distinguishing factors are who controls the poison being issued, and who can access it. Law, a lone actor, supplied poison to people without discrimination. With “assisted dying”, doctors dispense poison to patients who fulfil certain criteria.

These criteria are often referred to as “safeguards” but global evidence shows they’re far from sound. Laws limiting access to the terminally ill are extended. Vulnerable patients come under invisible pressure to die for fear of “being a burden” or face more deliberate forms of coercion. Mental health issues are overlooked, as are wider issues of inequality such as access to healthcare and poverty. No amount of legal tinkering can prevent abuses. All of this is why legislation in the UK to create “assisted dying” has been rejected time and again.

They claim that their cause is wholly different to aiding suicide

Assisted suicide campaigners hate the suggestion that there’s an equivalence between suicide and what they call for in healthcare settings. They claim that their cause is wholly different to aiding suicide – it’s about ensuring a “good death” for suffering people who are dying anyway. I don’t doubt that people sympathetic to “assisted dying” are, indeed, motivated by compassion for those they love who have suffered at the end of life. But I also fear that the public are taken in by misleading rhetoric and false claims.

Campaigners soften language to play down what they are asking for. They use the euphemism “assisted dying” instead of the more intellectually honest term “assisted suicide”. They use “medication” to describe what is a lethal dose of drugs. They talk in fluffy terms about a “peaceful” and “dignified” death but never spell out exactly what an “assisted death” involves. How many sympathetic members of the public know the precise details? I suspect their position on “assisted dying” might well shift were they to find out.

As an expert medic recently told me, it involves a person ingesting an experimental cocktail of drugs designed to end their life. The drugs typically used can induce vomiting, seizures, or acute mental distress. People can take anywhere from an hour to several days to die, whilst anguished loved ones watch on. We know this from other countries that have assisted suicide laws. Is this truly a “good death”? Or does “dignity” look like life-affirming doctors meeting a person’s needs until natural death occurs? I know what I think.

I acknowledge that the debate around “assisted dying” is an emotive one, touching on many complex issues. However, it disturbs me that one of the primary casualties in this debate is truth. It is all very well arguing for a “good death” death, but politicians can’t be expected to sanction seismic changes in law and practice without detail. Regarding “assisted dying”, we are talking about suicide by poisoning, facilitated by the medical establishment. This is the cold, hard truth. It is past time this was stated plainly.

In my mind, sanctioning the suicides of one group in society – the terminally ill – and perhaps other groups of people further down the line can only be ruinous. Either we sanction suicide, or we don’t. Either we cherish and protect people, or we don’t. There’s no third way. Respecting the value of human life requires a consistent ethic, or life’s value begins immediately to be eroded. On “assisted dying”, politicians must see past the spin. They must seek truth and choose to protect the vulnerable.

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