Euthanasia’s slope just as slippery in the U.K.
Advocates renew their push for legalized assisted suicide
Doctors diagnosed Nola Leach’s husband, Tony, with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014. He was hospitalized, incontinent, and had lost the use of his legs when he told his wife, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.” The couple living in the U.K. did not have the legal option of euthanasia, and Tony’s feeling of despair soon passed. “That was one fleeting moment,” Nola reflected later. “I am just so grateful that there wasn’t a change in the law because I feel that if there was, I wouldn’t have been able to have the trust in his medical staff that I did.”
Tony died three years after his diagnosis. Despite his suffering, the couple shared some of their most precious moments in his final days. Their granddaughter often came to hold Tony’s hand and sing to him. During the hour before he died, he became lucid again, and the couple sang hymns from their wedding day. The Leaches might have missed those moments if doctors had the legal power to end his life.
Politicians and pro-euthanasia activist groups in the U.K. are renewing a push to legalize the practice in the country. This week, several family members of people who died from a terminal illness and one man who wishes to die by assisted suicide wrote an open letter asking Parliament to review the law against it. Andrew Mitchell, the co-chairman of a parliamentary group that supports euthanasia, told British news outlets public perception is changing and Parliament could legalize assisted suicide within four years. He suggested limited laws would protect against the slippery slope of other European countries, where euthanasia has expanded even to those who do not want to die.
U.K. pro-life groups are skeptical of Mitchell’s prediction.
“I think it’s a bold claim,” said James Mildred, the communications manager for Christian Action Research and Education, a group in the U.K. that Leach leads. He noted that politicians made similar assumptions about public opinion during the last serious attempt to legalize assisted suicide in September 2015. But when it came time to vote, more members of Parliament recognized the law would harm the country.
Groups that support assisted suicide point to what seems like widespread support for it. In 2015, one poll showed that 82 percent of respondents “wanted to see a law that would allow a terminally ill, mentally competent person, with a prognosis of 6 months or less, to have the option of an assisted death under stringent safeguards.” Alistair Thompson, a spokesman for the U.K. group Care Not Killing, attributed the results to a very “narrowly drawn question” biased in favor of an affirmative response.
He and Mildred noted other polls explored the nuances and risks of euthanasia and found different answers. One poll from 2019 conducted by Care Not Killing asked if people thought legalized assisted suicide would change the relationship between doctors and patients. It also questioned if it would make some people feel pressured to end their own lives for fear of being a burden. Close to 50 percent of respondents said yes to both of those questions.
“It can seem like the proponents of assisted suicide are carrying the day,” Mildred said. “But when the arguments about safeguards, about protecting the vulnerable, about the risks involved in legalizing assisted suicide—when they are given prominence and when they are heard—that can genuinely have an impact on public perception.”
Mildred and Thompson said the example of other countries provides the strongest argument against legalizing euthanasia. Assisted suicide laws in the Netherlands and Belgium started narrow—written only to allow for mentally competent adults with a terminal diagnosis to end their lives. But those safeguards have disappeared. “Now we’re seeing people with disabilities like blindness [die by euthanasia],” said Thompson. “We’re seeing people with psychiatric problems like anorexia and depression. We’re seeing children and nonmentally competent people who are being euthanized.”
Thompson and Mildred said Mitchell’s assumption that the outcome in the U.K. would be different is wrong.
“What we see in other places that have gone down this route is very much a slippery slope,” Thompson said. “So to try and claim that that will not happen in the U.K. is, frankly, absurd.”
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