The debate over assisted dying (physician-assisted suicide)

At the Methodist Conference in 2015, members brought two Notices of Motion (2015/212 and 2015/221) in response to the Assisted Dying Bill which was then before Parliament. The Conference, after a brief debate, referred this matter to the Methodist Council which requested the production of resources for the Church (see About the death and dying resource). The Bill was overwhelmingly defeated (by 330 votes to 118) in the House of Commons in September 2015; however the debate has not stopped and further legislative attempts are likely in future.

Two extracts from the 2015 motions may illustrate the very sincere beliefs held both by those who believe the law should change to allow assisted suicide, and those who see that as a slippery slope:

  • (NoM 2015/212): “[Assisted dying] would have a seriously detrimental effect on the wellbeing of individuals and on the nature and shape of our society, and can only add to the pressures that many vulnerable terminally ill people will feel”;
  • (NoM 2015/221): “where death is considered both certain and imminent, a compassionate due judicial dispensation to allow assisted end of life could be appropriate”.

It may be useful to clarify the choice of terminology:

  • The term ‘euthanasia’ literally means ‘good death’. It was routinely used in this debate in the past but has largely been superseded. If euthanasia is defined as the deliberate ending of life in order to bring suffering to an end, the term suggests that the fatal measure is administered by someone other than the patient.
  • ‘Mercy killing’ is another term that is now little used and may have connotations of involuntary euthanasia, eg a soldier killing a critically-injured combatant or civilian as an act of ‘mercy’ (illegal under the Geneva Convention).
  • ‘Assisted dying’ is the term most generally in use in the UK at this time to describe a situation in which a patient is allowed to decide that they wish to bring their life to an end and medical professionals are permitted to assist them in this. Such acts are currently illegal in the UK but have been legalised to varying extents in some other countries.
  • The term ‘Physician-assisted suicide’ (PAS) is an alternative now widely adopted by the medical profession. It makes clear both that the fatal measure (eg a lethal pill) has to be taken by the patient themselves, and that assistance is provided by a doctor (as distinct from, say, a patient’s family obtaining and passing them an illegal drug).

The links below give further insights into this debate.