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Debate: Assisted suicide

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Should assisted suicide be legalized?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Bobby Webster. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

Assisted Suicide, also called Voluntary Euthanasia, is currently a contentious issue in many countries. The question in the debate is this: if a terminally ill person decides that they wish to end their life, is it acceptable for others to assist them? This would normally take the form of a doctor administering a lethal injection, which would end their life painlessly. A clear distinction must be made with involuntary euthanasia, by which someone is ‘put down’ against their wishes, and which is simply murder by another name. In the United States, Dr Jack Kervorkian – nicknamed ‘Doctor Death’ for his actions beliefs – has been campaigning for a change in the law for many years, and has assisted in the suicide of at least 45 people; he was recently found guilty of second degree murder and imprisoned after a widely publicized trial. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, voluntary euthanasia has been legal since 1983, with some 3,000 people requesting it each year. In Australia, assisted suicide was legalised in the Northern Territories with the backing of a substantial majority of the local population, but was then overthrown by the Federal Senate before anyone could actually use the new law. As a great deal hinges on the practicalities of this debate, it is imperative that the proposition provide a fairly specific set of criteria to explain when assisted suicide would be legal and when it would not. It is worth looking at the legal procedures proposed in Australia and those in use in the Netherlands, as examples of the kind of safeguards which may be needed.

Right to life and death? Does every citizen have not only the right to life, but also the right to die?


The right to life, like other rights, also entails the right to choose to abdicate that right: Every right comes a choice. The right to speech does not remove the option to remain silent; the right to vote brings with it the right to abstain. In the same way, the right to choose to die is implicit in the right to life.


There is no comparison between the right to life and other rights. When you choose to remain silent, you may change your mind at a later date; when you choose to die, you have no such second chance. Participating in someone’s death is also to participate in depriving them of all choices they might make in the future, and is therefore immoral.

Ending pain? Is euthanasia justified on the basis of ending the pain and suffering of a terminally ill individual?


Those who are in the late stages of a terminal disease have a horrific future ahead of them: the gradual decline of their body, the failure of their organs and the need for artificial support. In some cases, the illness will slowly destroy their minds, the essence of themselves; even if this is not the case, the huge amounts of medication required to ‘control’ their pain will often leave them in a delirious and incapable state. Faced with this, it is surely more humane that those people be allowed to choose the manner of their own end, and die with dignity.


Pain can be effectively eliminated through modern medicines, allowing for extended life without pain: Modern palliative care is immensely flexible and effective, and helps to preserve quality of life as far as is possible. There is no need for terminally ill patients ever to be in pain, even at the very end of the course of their illness. It is always wrong to give up on life. The future which lies ahead for the terminally ill is of course terrifying, but society’s role is to help them live their lives as well as they can. This can take place through counselling, helping patients to come to terms with their condition.

Social norms: Can suicide be justified as acceptable within social norms?


Society recognises that suicide is unfortunate but acceptable in some circumstances – those who end their own lives are not seen as evil, nor is it a crime to attempt suicide. The illegality of assisted suicide is therefore particularly cruel for those who are disabled by their disease, and are unable to die without assistance.


Those who commit suicide are not evil, and those who attempt to take their own lives are not prosecuted. However, if someone is threatening to kill themselves it is your moral duty to try to stop them. You would not, for example, simply ignore a man standing on a ledge and threatening to jump simply because it is his choice; and you would definitely not assist in his suicide by pushing him. In the same way, you should try to help a person with a terminal illness, not help them to die.

Family coping: Can the legalization of suicide enable families to better engage and cope with the inevitable death of a family member?


Legalizing suicide would bring the practice into the open, enabling greater family participation, understanding, and settlement surrounding death: Suicide is a lonely, desperate act, carried out in secrecy and often as a cry for help. The impact on the family who remain can be catastrophic. By legalising assisted suicide, the process can be brought out into the open. In some cases, families might have been unaware of the true feelings of their loved one; being forced to confront the issue of their illness may do great good, perhaps even allowing them to persuade the patient not to end their life. In other cases, it makes them part of the process: they can understand the reasons behind their decision without feelings of guilt and recrimination, and the terminally ill patient can speak openly to them about their feelings before their death.


Demanding that family take part in such a decision can be an unbearable burden. Many may resent a loved one’s decision to die, and would be either emotionally scared or estranged by the prospect of being in any way involved with their death. Assisted suicide also introduces a new danger, that the terminally ill may be pressured into ending their lives by others who are not prepared to support them through their illness. Even the most well regulated system would have no real way to ensure that this did not happen.

Doctors: Would legalizing euthanasia enable doctors greater flexibility in providing patients with the options they demand?


Doctors are often put into an impossible position of denying requests to assist in suicide: A good doctor will form close bonds with their patients, and will want to give them the best quality of life they can. However, when a patient has lost or is losing their ability to live with dignity and expresses a strong desire to die, they are legally unable to help. To say that modern medicine can totally eradicate pain is a tragic over-simplification of suffering. While physical pain may be alleviated, the emotional pain of a slow and lingering death, of the loss of the ability to live a meaningful life, can be horrific. A doctor’s duty is to address his or her patient’s suffering, be it physical or emotional. As a result, doctors will in fact already help their patients to die – although it is not legal, assisted suicide does take place. It would be far better to recognise this, and bring the process into the open, where it can be regulated. True abuses of the doctor-patient relationship, and incidents of involuntary euthanasia, would then be far easier to limit.


Doctors should be able to draw ethical boundaries against assisting suicide: The guiding principle of medical ethics is to do no harm: a physician must not be involved in deliberately harming their patient. Without this principle, the medical profession would lose a great deal of trust; and admitting that killing is an acceptable part of a doctor’s role would likely increase the danger of involuntary euthanasia, not reduce it. Legalising assisted suicide also places an unreasonable burden on doctors. The daily decisions made in order to preserve life can be difficult enough; to require them to also carry the immense moral responsibility of deciding who can and cannot die, and the further responsibility of actually killing patients, is unacceptable. This is why the vast majority of medical professionals oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide: ending the life of a patient goes against all they stand for.



  • This House would legalise assisted suicide
  • This House would die with dignity

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