1. A matter of life and death
One Briton every fortnight goes to Switzerland for an assisted death, according to figures from campaign group Dignity in Dying.
Unlike euthanasia, where a patient’s life is taken by someone else, assisted dying is when a terminally ill adult, who wishes to die, takes medication that will end her or his life. Helping someone to die is illegal in the UK and could lead to up to 14 years in prison.
In 2015, MPs voted down a proposal to make assisted dying legal. Yet in a poll that year of 5,000 people, 82% supported a change in the law to give terminally ill, mentally competent people the legal option of assistance to die with dignity. Discover the arguments that fuel this fraught moral dilemma, and vote on whether you think assisted dying is morally justifiable.
2. INTERACTIVE: The debate
Click below to reveal key arguments on each side of the debate about legalising assisted death..
This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.
3. WATCH: Who should have the right to assist?
Assisted dying requires the patient to be capable of taking medication prescribed by a doctor. But in cases of paralysis, when this is not possible, could it ever be morally justifiable for someone else to perform the act of killing?
Tony Nicklinson suffered from locked-in syndrome after a major stroke in 2005. As his condition left him paralysed and unable to take his own life, he fought a five-year legal battle to have a doctor or family member kill him without risk of prosecution. Shortly after his case was turned down by the High Court 2012, Tony died, choosing to refuse food and water.
4. The role of the doctor
Central to the debate on assisted dying is the part played by the health care professional - after all, it is them that would be handing over the lethal prescription and facilitating the suicide. Is it acceptable or safe for a person to assist a suicide, simply because they are a doctor?
The doctor-patient relationship
The BMA – the union which represents thousands of doctors - officially opposes all forms of assisted dying, which it says would have a “profound and detrimental” effect on the doctor-patient relationship.
Doctors have unique responsibilities, and therefore we hold them to different ethical standards than ordinary people. Allowing doctors to help people end their lives, the BMA says, would fundamentally change the ethos of medical care, which aims to improve the quality of life, not end life. If we knew that our doctors had the power to both prolong and to end our lives, would we be able to trust them as we can now?
Opponents of assisted dying stress how integral doctors would be to the procedure. Far from simply carrying out the wishes of dying patients, they would be responsible for deciding whether the patient is of sound mind and really does want to die.
Assessing mental capacity can be extremely difficult – for psychiatrists let alone GPs. How could a doctor ever really know if the desire to die is genuine, and not the result of temporary depression? Arguably putting doctors in this position is problematic, particularly when the stakes are so high.
Opinion among healthcare professionals and organisations is mixed. The Royal College of Nursing, for example, acknowledges the complexities of the debate around assisted dying but officially holds a neutral stance. It neither supports nor opposes a change in the law.
Some doctors feel it would be more compassionate to allow assisted dying. Others believe it would make patients and doctors safer - a legal practice, with safeguards, would arguably be preferable to current methods such as administering medication which has the side effect of hastening death.