The subject of assisted suicide, it seems, just won’t go away.
Legal cases come up with increasing frequency, in which individuals wanting the right to die at a time of their choosing challenge one aspect or another. In the meantime healthcare professionals appear to be polarised, making it impossible for the associations representing them to develop policies that gain support from a majority of their members.
The latest case to come to prominence is that of Tony Nicklinson, who earlier this month won the right to ask the courts to declare that a doctor can end the “indignity and misery” of his life.
Mr Nicklinson has had locked-in syndrome since, at the age of only 51, a stroke in 2005 left him paralysed and only able to communicate through an Eye Blink Computer. While his body may be helpless, Mr Nicklinson’s mind was undamaged. He now says he is Anyone wanting to gain some understanding of what this means for his quality of life should read the Patient Voice article Mr Nicklinson wrote for Nursing Times in 2011. After seven years Mr Nicklinson wants the right to ask a doctor to end his life without fear of legal redress.
Unless he wins his case and succeeds where others have failed, the law on assisted suicide will almost certainly continue to be challenged by other individuals who are unable to end their own lives but either already find them intolerable or know that a time will come when they do. At present their only option is to refuse food and die a lingering death of starvation.
Of course, if the law were to change, the onus would then move onto the people asked to facilitate assisted suicide. Many health professionals, even if they support the principle of assisted suicide, would not wish to actually administer the drugs that would end these intolerable lives.
I suspect that sooner or later those who argue for assisted suicide will prevail, simply because there will always be another determined individual ready to fight all the way to the highest court. Each time the subject hits the headlines in a way that demonstrates just what such people endure every day, public opinion is likely to shift in their favour.
If and when the law does change, there must, of course, be rigorous safeguards to ensure no one is pressurised to request assisted suicide. However, there must also be support and training for any health professionals willing to accede to such requests – and no professionals must be pressurised to do so.