Religious Studies GCSE: Should assisted suicide be legalised?

After a very serious accident 23 years ago, Paul was left almost completely paralysed.

Receiving round-the-clock care, he believes that everyone should have the right to assisted suicide.

Charlotte works as a hospice doctor and looks after patients suffering from a terminal illness. She thinks we should care for people until the end of their lives, and that others should never be put in a position of helping to end someone else’s life.

This poses the question: Should assisted suicide be legalised?

Assisted suicide is where an individual ends their life with the help of another person.

This practice is currently illegal in the UK and carries a maximum 14-year prison sentence. However, the issue is widely debated, as euthanasia has been made legal in other European counties. This supports the notion that individuals have the right to decide, whether they should live or die. If someone finds themselves in extreme, incurable pain, some may argue that they should be able to choose how and when to end their life.

This short film explores the moral and practical issues of assisted suicide, from both religious and non-religious perspectives. It provides students with the opportunity to evaluate a range of beliefs, prior to consolidating their own viewpoint.

This clip is taken from the BBC Two series, Matters of life and death.

PLEASE NOTE: This film includes discussion on death and suicide. Teacher review is recommended prior to use in class. The film, first broadcast in 2014, also uses the phrase 'commit suicide'. Suicide was decriminalised in 1961 and many organisations working in the area of suicide prevention are concerned about the use of the phrase ‘commit suicide’, arguing that the phrasing stigmatises suicide and is insensitive to those affected by suicide. They prefer to refer to a person’s decision to take their own life, or that they died by suicide.

Teacher Notes

The clip provides two contrasting views regarding assisted suicide.

Paul believes that everyone who is of sound mind should have the right to decide when to end their own life. In 1990, Paul had a car accident and was almost completely paralysed. He now relies upon others to do everything for him, including being fed, washed, and having his nose blown. Paul describes himself as being in constant physical and mental pain. He believes that it is fundamentally cruel to take away someone’s absolute independence and says that he has lost all quality of life. He has spoken with his family who he says would not wish to see him suffer unduly. Paul says he would have no qualms about choosing to die, at home, amongst those he loves.

Contrastingly, Charlotte is a palliative care doctor who works in a hospice. She believes that we have a duty to care for people at the end of their lives should not give up on them. Additionally, she raises concerns over the responsibility placed upon others in asking them to assist someone in ending their own life. Charlotte refers to the effects that the loss of a loved one under these circumstances may cause. She believes that palliative care can help people find meaning when living with life-threatening illnesses, as well as instilling hope. Charlotte also references the ‘slippery slope’ debate, claiming that those who become dependent on others may feel forced into assisted suicide through feelings of shame. She has seen first-hand the ability to overcome extreme suffering, which would not have been encountered should someone have chosen to end their life prematurely, at the start of a period of change.

The clip concludes with representatives from various faiths and humanist societies, explaining their views on assisted suicide and linking them to their belief systems.

Before watching the film:

Issues addressed within the clip may well personally affect students within the classroom. You should preview the footage in order to familiarise yourself with the content and enable you to pre-warn students of its sensitive nature. Specifically, the clip references suicide and delivers personal testimonies from those who have experienced life-altering injuries that require care.

It also references palliative care within a hospice. As students and their families may well have experienced suicide and life-changing injury and illness, you will need to approach the topic with sensitivity and remind pupils to be empathetic towards others where there are differing viewpoints.

You may find it useful to introduce or revisit ‘ethics’ prior to watching the clip. You may wish to explore the following:

  • What is an ‘ethical issue’?
  • What should form the basis of our ethical decisions?
  • What is quality of life?
  • What is UK law around assisted suicide and how does it compare to the law elsewhere?

During clip:

You may find it beneficial to pause the video in order to check for understanding. The following questions make useful discussion points:

  • What is meant by the term ‘quality of life’?
  • Does Paul have quality of life?
  • Does there ever come a point where someone’s quality of life is deemed to be so low that it is no longer worth living?
  • Can we measure quality of life and if so how?
  • Is quality of life different for everyone?
  • How might a family member feel, caring for James with a life-changing injury?
  • Is assisted suicide an example of ‘giving up’ on others, as described by Charlotte? How else could it be viewed?
  • Is assisted suicide was legalised in the UK, who should decide whether someone is able to end their own life?
  • Could we ever avoid the ‘slippery slope’ which Charlotte refers to if we legalised assisted suicide?
  • How would a doctor feel being put in the position of assisting someone to end their own life?
  • Would there be a difference between the way in which someone was treated if they were physically or mentally ill?
  • Does someone have the right to decide when and how to end their own life?
  • Is assisting someone to die by suicide an act of love and compassion?
  • Should it be illegal to assist people to die by suicide in the UK?

Following on:

You could support students in consolidating their learning, deepening their understanding of the issue and applying exam skills in context. Suggested tasks:

  • Lead a class discussion or debate around the question ‘Should assisted suicide be legalised?’. This could be informal or more structured. The class could be divided into smaller groups and students could be asked to research arguments to represent a particular viewpoint e.g. Humanist, Hindu, Sikh. Alternatively, students could be asked to do their own independent research with some guidance, in order to participate in a free-flowing debate. This could also be carried out in the form of a ‘silent’ debate, having students write down their responses on large sheets of paper or tables. Students could be encouraged to respond to each other to develop evaluative skills.
  • Signpost students to pressure groups attempting to legalise assisted suicide in the UK. Additionally, use case studies where individuals have campaigned for the right to die in the UK. Students could be given details of Pauls Lamb's legal battle – he lost his case at the Supreme Court in 2014.
  • Ask students to analyse examples of those who have continued to find purpose and meaning in life, despite living with life-changing illnesses or injuries. A good example of this would be Stephen Hawking. Ask students to consider what might account for individuals’ different responses and perspectives in relation to life-changing illnesses.
  • In relation to religious responses, students could be presented with a collection of scripture or religious teachings relating to the religions which they are required to study. This could be in the form of a card sort (separating those arguments for and against) and they could then be asked to explain the rationale behind their choices.
  • Organise and deliver a carousel task, allowing students to collate information regarding different religious viewpoints. This could be related to specific questions or they could be asked to fill out a grid which they could use to compare beliefs.
  • Facilitate an in-depth study into one religious perspective (individually or in groups) and present this to the class who could take notes.
  • Ask students to research countries where assisted suicide is legal and find facts and statistics which evidence its use. What conclusions can they draw from these findings? This could be supported with cases of UK citizens who go abroad specifically to seek euthanasia.
  • Students could be asked to complete a ‘Venn Diagram’ in which they identify similarities and differences between two religious viewpoints.

Curriculum Notes

This short film will be relevant for teaching Religious Studies.

This topic appears in OCR, Edexcel, AQA, WJEC KS4/GCSE in England and Wales, CCEA GCSE in Northern Ireland and SQA National 4/5 in Scotland.

More from Matters of life and death:

Is it ever right to experiment on animals?
Is it okay to have a child to save another?
What are the rights and wrongs of abortion?
What are the rights and wrongs of the death penalty?
When is it right to go to war?