Principal's Lecture: Do You Have The Right To Die?

London A40

In December, Damian Warburton, the Head of Law and Senior Lecturer in Law at the New College of Humanities, delivered a lecture about the law and euthanasia, in which he questioned the recent rejection of the Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill by the House of Commons. 

The bill sought to ‘enable competent adults who are terminally ill to choose to be provided with medically supervised assistance to end their own life.’ It was rejected at the end of last year, with MPs voting 330 to 118 against changing the law. The bill called into question aspects of the Suicide Act of 1961, which states that it is illegal to ‘aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another or an attempt of another to commit suicide.’ A violation of this is treated as manslaughter or murder. While MPs overwhelmingly voted against the bill, a 2015 survey found that 82% of the British public thought that it ought to be passed. 

If the law had been approved, doctors would, following a series of stringent safeguards, have been able to prescribe terminally ill patients lethal drugs, which the patient would have to administer themselves. This is what is referred to as ‘assisted dying’. Assisted dying is often confused with voluntary euthanasia, which is when doctors administer the life-ending dose themselves. Voluntary euthanasia is opposed by both politicians and the general public in the UK, and would have remained illegal under the proposed Act. 

Warburton then spoke about possible consequences of this bill, looking at instances where similar laws have been passed. In America, in Oregon, assisted dying has been legal for 18 years, under the Dignity in Death Act. Patients must be fully cognisant of the decision they are making, and be diagnosed with a fatal condition that will lead to their death within six months. It must be approved by two independent physicians, in the presence of two witnesses. Zero cases of abuse have been reported in this time. In contrast, in the Netherlands, where voluntary euthanasia is illegal but permissible in certain circumstances, many issues have arisen. Eleven people chose the treatment in 2013 without any diagnosed illness, and there have been numerous instances of abuse. Moreover, approximately 23% of euthanasia deaths go unrecorded. 

The issue is divisive and highly complex, and Damian Warburton gave an excellent summary of key arguments on either side of the debate, and the role that the law plays in shaping medical practice. The lecture left us much better informed on the issues and provoked thoughtful discussion that will no doubt continue in future. 

Max Butler and Rob Miller