The number of audience disagreed to the legalising of assisted suicide in the UK almost doubled in a panel debate hosted by Intelligence Squared on Tuesday night.
Two public polls were extracted before and after the debate. Those who were against the motion increased from 110 votes before the debate to 208 votes at the end of the event. Two initial supporters changed their mind after the debate but poll still recorded 406 votes for the motion.
The debate, chaired by broadcaster Sue Lawley, featured Emily Jackson, Professor of Law at the London School of Economics; Debbie Purdy, a prominent campaigner of assisted suicide; Mary Warnock, former Member of House of Lords Select Committee on Euthanasia; Lord Alex Carlile QC, barrister, Liberal Democrat peer and Chairman of Care not killing; Lord (Richard) Harries of Pentregarth and Dr Patrick Stone, the Macmillan Reader in Palliative Medicine at St George’s University of London.
The panel debated on numerous aspects of this controversial issue including the moral judgement of “letting die”, patients’ autonomy, the lack of clarity of prosecution against family members who assist in the death abroad and the double standards within the European Union.
Lord Alex Carlile argued that euthanasia should not be considered because it implied the legalisation of a form of homicide. He also said that a group of self-selected doctors should not be the judges and “play the big G”. He insisted that changing the law was unnecessary.
“No system of law can protect the weak, the mentally frail and those who want to change their mind at the last-minute,” he said. “Let’s have the things just the way they are.”
However, his opinion did not echo among the panelists who demanded more autonomy to patients.
Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who won a ruling from Law Lords to clarify the law in 2008, insisted that the decision should be down to the patients.
“This is our choice. It is not the politicians or the doctors, but we who make the decision.”
Professor Emily Jackson of LSE explained that the legalisation of assisted suicide was not an argument for death. Instead, she believed that giving more autonomy to patients to decide on their lives can “enhance the life of the dying”.
“People want to die with dignity and without pain, and now the law forbids it,” she said.
She suggested that by legalising assisted suicide, patients could be reassured the prospect of autonomy of their lives and feel empowered.
Dr Patrick Stone challenged her view by explaining that the current law already gives terminally ill patients the right to refuse treatment. He explained that most patients do not want the legalisation and they are mostly driven by fear, pain and the idea of a traumatic death. The existing palliative care in the UK can achieve painless, fearless and dignified death and is, in fact, more ethical and humane.
“One in five patients who go to Switzerland [for assisted suicide] could not finish the job and ended up with a toxic dose injected by doctors,” he said.
“There is no need to campaign [for legalising assisted suicide]. The only difference between palliative care and assisted suicide is that, with the latter, patients can choose the exact time and place to die.”
Apart from the ethical dilemma, the legality of assisted suicide also created huge disagreements among the panelists.
Purdy, with tears in her eyes, expressed her frustration towards the ambiguity of the law in the UK. She argued that more than 100 British patients had traveled to a specialist euthanasia clinic in the Netherlands and Switzerland but nobody had been prosecuted yet. She said that the law was not clear enough whether family members, who accompanied the patients, would suffer from jail sentences.
“We need clarity. We need to know what the laws mean and how they are used,” she said. “Politicians are our elected representatives and we have the right to be represented. Our rights should be taken seriously but politicians are too cowardly to discuss the issue.”
She admitted to the Telegraph earlier that if her husband would be prosecuted for accompanying and assisting the ending of her life, she would go to an euthanasia clinic in Zürich alone and before her illness proceeded.
When asked for clarification of the number of prosecuted family members who took part in assisted suicide abroad, Lord Carlile, a previous Member of the House of Commons and the current Chairman of Care not Killing, admitted that he did not know.
“I have not looked into the documents but I expect more people who went to Switzerland [to accompany patients] to be prosecuted,” he said.