Wednesday, 4 June 2014

An Atheist’s Prayer On Assisted Dying

This reflection by Kevin Yuill first appeared on The Lanchaster Review blog and is reproduced with permission.

Dr. Kevin Yuill

Much of the discussion on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally-Ill Bill seems to take place between self-professed conservatives those who hold that life is a sacred gift from God and those – normally secular liberals – who reject such religious tenets and support legalized assisted dying.

But it is possible to be an atheist, strongly support abortion rights, and feel oneself to be reasonably libertarian and entirely reject the Falconer Bill.

As a card-carrying atheist (OK – I have no card but…), I want to convince my fellow liberal minded atheists to reconsider their support for legalized assisted dying.
Why? Let us strip down the argument, first getting rid of the Orwellian term “assisted dying”.

What is happening in Oregon now and what is proposed in the Falconer Bill (which is based on the Oregon legislation), to use plain English, is suicide – and that is what this is all about.

The chief sponsoring agency (Dignity in Dying) lamely differentiates between the dying (those with six months or less to live) and those with more time.

If the latter ingest poison in a room by themselves – well, that’s suicide. But if those with less than six months take poison with the intent to end their lives, that is not suicide at all but <ahem> assisted dying. Nope, me neither.

Then, let’s look at the safeguards to prevent assisted suicide from being abused. Of course, smoke is blown from both sides of the debate.

There is little evidence that, in Oregon, vulnerable people are dragged or pressured into assisted suicides, as is sometimes alleged by opponents of assisted suicide.

(Ed: Little evidence, yes, in an empirical sense; but significant anecdotal evidence. Hard data on abuse or possible abuse is difficult to collect because of the nature of the law as this article from DREF explains. Click HERE.)

But Oregon is not where to look if you want to see what an entire country – not a small part of it – looks like when voluntary death is accepted as a principle.

Instead, try Belgium, where the desire to die of two 45-year old twins who feared going blind, of a 43-year old transsexual who did not like the results of his operation, and now of terminally-ill children, are honoured. 

Or try the Netherlands, where safeguards originally allowed euthanasia only for patients who were terminally ill and suffering untreatable physical pain.

Now, euthanasia is allowed for those who are bereft, or simply lonely.

A recent campaign that gathered 133,000 signatures asked that all Dutch over 70 and “tired of life” be allowed euthanasia.

In Switzerland, which allows assisted suicide but not euthanasia, the elderly are now included as an eligible category at Exit, one of the clinics providing death on demand.

Once death is prescribed for suffering, the safeguards will be swept aside as new groups are identified for “help” for their suffering.
Then consider autonomy. “People ought to be able to control their own deaths”.

This sounds reasonable – until you think it through. Anyone, on the basis of autonomy, ought to be able to end it at any time with our help and approval.

The 22-year old lovelorn man or the 86-year old with terminal cancer have equal cases for an assisted suicide on the basis of autonomy.

The much vaunted majority of Britons supporting a change in the law dries up as only 15 per cent support assisted suicide for anyone.

What about compassion?

Doctors should continue to despatch the few (and getting fewer as pain control improves) who suffer needlessly in the last hours or days of life. But compassion is not honouring, as this law will force us to do, suicidal wishes.

The truly compassionate do not hand the suicidal patient a gun and say “you have my blessings!”

Instead, they respond to the suicidal with assurances that their lives – no matter how wretched they feel them to be and no matter how much time is left – continue to have value.

Anyone thinking hard enough about this issue will come to a mature decision that neither Britain nor humanity in general can give in to these death wishes.

You really don’t have to be a Christian.

Dr Kevin Yuill teaches American History at the University of Sunderland and is author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalization (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).


  1. Very many thanks for the plug and link, but it is The Lanchester Review, not Lancaster (I founded, own, publish and edit it). Keep visiting it, though. And keep up the fight.

    1. Hi David, thanks for the advice - I've edited the post. Keep up the good work!