Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Stephen Hawking is a great scientist but his advice on decriminalising assisted suicide should be given short shrift

More on Stephen Hawking's comments supporting assisted suicide; this time from CareNotKilling UK's Dr Peter Saunders:

Scientist Professor Stephen Hawking has spoken out in favour of assisted suicide for people with terminal diseases (See Independent,BBCTelegraph).

In an interview with the BBC, he said:

‘I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives and those who help them should be free from prosecution. 

But there must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and they are not being pressurised into it or have it done without their knowledge or consent, as would have been the case with me.’

Prof Hawking, now 71, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) aged 21 and told that he had just two or three years to live.

Following a bout of pneumonia in 1985, he was placed on a life support machine which his first wife, Jane Hawking, had the option to switch off, but instead insisted that he be flown back from Geneva to Cambridge.

He recovered from his pneumonia and went on to complete his popular science best-seller ‘A Brief History of Time’, which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Somewhat ironically, he is living proof of the fact that doctors can be very wrong about prognoses (28 years out in Hawking’s case!), and that one can live a worthwhile life, full of meaning and purpose, despite having a serious, progressive, life limiting disease.

There have been three attempts to legalise assisted suicide in Britain since 2006 all of which have been defeated by substantial majorities. Two further bills, one in the House of Lords and one in Scotland are currently awaiting debate.

All of these bills contain the kind of safeguards Hawking has referred to but on each occasion in the past parliamentarians were not convinced that they would work and opted to reject them out of concern for public safety.

Their judgement was that any change in the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia would place pressure on vulnerable people – those who are elderly, sick, disabled or depressed – to end their lives for fear of becoming a financial or emotional burden. Such fears would be acutely felt at a time of economic recession when many families are struggling to make ends meet and health budgets are being cut. Moreover subtle forms of coercion within families are extremely difficult to detect, even by skilled health professionals.

We often hear from the pro-euthanasia lobby that they are only interested in legalising assisted suicide or euthanasia with so-called ‘strict safeguards’ – usually only for people who are ‘mentally competent, terminally ill adults’.

And yet the two major arguments they employ (autonomy - 'it's my right' - and compassion - 'my suffering is unbearable') can be equally applied to people who are neither mentally competent nor terminally ill.

There is thus a logical slippery slope operating, in that if you accept that assisted suicide or euthanasia is applicable for some under strict criteria, then it must follow logically that it will also be applicable for others outside these bounds.  Activists pushing for legalisation are obviously aware of this.

Any law allowing assisted suicide or euthanasia on any grounds at all would be ripe for challenge under equality and diversity legislation – hence the charge that activists are knowingly using the excuse of ‘robust safeguards’ to disguise the fact that they are actually working to an agenda of incremental extension: progressive legalisation by a series of imperceptibly small steps.

As I have previously argued, evidence of practice in those jurisdictions that have legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia (especially Belgium and the Netherlands) shows that the safeguards are illusory.

Lord Falconer’s bill, about to be debated in the House of Lords, uses a licensing system similar to that in the Abortion Act whereby two doctors certify in good faith that the necessary legal conditions apply.

We have already seen in the failures of regulation by the Care Quality Commission over poor care in hospitals and care homes that abuses will not be dealt with adequately until it is too late.
If some doctors cannot be trusted with a clinical tool like the Liverpool Care Pathway, which was abandoned after a major enquiry due to widespread abuse, why do we imagine they can be trusted with authorising and administering assisted suicide?

Finally, and this is probably what concerns me most, having assisted suicide as a healthcare option potentially saves a lot of money on care. This will inevitably make it an attractive option to families, healthcare managers and politicians who are wanting to save money. The danger of vulnerable people then being subtly steered toward suicide under such a system is very real and will be very difficult to detect. For a start, the key witness in each case will be dead and unable to give evidence.

We are best off with the current law, a blanket ban on assisted suicide and euthanasia but with discretion given to prosecutors and judges in hard cases. The penalties the current law holds in reserve provide a strong deterrent to those with an interest in another person’s death but allow flexibility for compassion. Most importantly it does not give doctors the power and authority ever actively to end life. We tamper with it at our peril. 


  1. SO basically, you think euthanasia is ok in 'hard cases' which are decided at the discretion of judges. I think you need to do a bit of soul searching on what is right and wrong. And please, if applicable, leave any religious mumbo jumbo from your thought processes.

    I value Stephen Hawking's opinion much more than yours.

  2. Euthanasia is never okay because it involves one person killing another. Why do you say 'if applicable'?

  3. 'If applicable' was referring to any religious reasons which may sway one's reason for apposing to legalize euthanasia. Church and state must always remain separate.

    'One person killing another' sounds very loaded to me. And also very vague. We're not talking about murder here. We're talking about a person of sound mind, who's suffering from unbearable pain, specifically asking to be able to choose to die.

  4. Hi Patrick,
    The issue is all about safeguards as Stephen Hawking underscores. That bit is left out by many. Why? Most odd. But onward we go. Safeguards are the first to go no matter how watertight they are. That is a fact. Second fact is that pro euthanasia legislation is redundant. For each heroic terribly afflicted person clamouring for the right to die there are thousands clamouring for simple interventions that will give them life and a bearable (to them) quality of life at that. You do not say where you derive your point of view from. Mine is a very long story. The thing to bear in mind is this, there is a very long history of safeguard abuse and a huge amount of data available to anyone supporting this abuse. People are killed to order every minute of every day against their wishes by medics of all people. It is happening as I type this. That is the true state of affairs and only the naive who turn a blind eye (a huge majority) for many reasons, the most common being avoidance of distress think that the current state is as advertised.

  5. Patrick,
    'One person killing another' is the unavoidable reality of euthanasia. We are talking about homicide.

    Go check out my website and blogsite. See if you can find any 'religious reasons'. Have fun!

  6. It's all just a little bit round and round in circles don't you think? I assume you yourself are not in any unthinkable pain. How about we let those who are in this terrible situation make these decisions for themselves?

  7. No, Patrick, I don't think. You can't simply get out of the reality that it is killing by simply saying that. Even Dr Nitschke admits that it is killing. You'll need to find a better defence than that!

  8. I just find it so arrogent, the notion of directly refusing someone this request. It's their life, let them choose.


  9. But it's not their right to make someone else kill them or to involve them in their death.What about the doctor's right to choose?

  10. Every proposal to legalise voluntary euthanasia requires that the doctor and any other person involved in the process must also be acting voluntarily. They have a right to choose to be involved or not involved.

    You know that Paul, try to be a little more honest.

    Marshall Perron

    1. Marshall, it's very sad that you and others in the pro-camp continue to get so shrill about matters and accuse us of dishonesty and lying. If ad hominem is all you have, then you have nothing to say.