Should we have the right to die on our own terms?

5 Aug 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 5 Aug 2015

Stephen Hawking - here at a conference with renowned physicists David Gross (left) and Ed Witten - has said he would consider ending his own life if he had "nothing more to contribute"
Stephen Hawking - here at a conference with renowned physicists David Gross (left) and Ed Witten - has said he would consider ending his own life if he had "nothing more to contribute"

Debate about right to die - and the right to help our loved ones do so, if they wish - is growing in the UK. Scope looks at a deceptively simple point of principle and its complex fine details.

We live in an era of personal choice, where it is taken as true that individuals exercising their freedoms over a menu of options is good.

People’s decisions about what directly affects them are broadly – but not entirely – a matter for the party concerned. But one thing we in the UK are not free to choose is how and when we die.

Is that one step beyond where choice has the right to tread, or is it a very pure piece of individual liberty?

Under increasing public discussion is the right to die. Westminster is due to debate an Assisted Dying Bill on September 11.

Various people have come out in support of assisted dying – physicist Stephen Hawking has said he himself would consider it if he had “nothing more to contribute” and that, “To keep someone alive against their wishes is the ultimate indignity.”

In an indication that this is an incredibly tricky issue, his first wife said his words should not be interpreted as a wholesale approval.

Beyond that, there are regular stories in the media about those who want to die on their own terms and the difficulties this presents for them and, more often than not, their loves ones as well.

Northern Ireland has a terrible problem with mental health issues generally and suicide specifically – but that is not the issue here. This debate concern a cool, calm, rational choice, typically made by people whose health is in freefall and who are concerned about the quality of their remaining life.


According to the lobby group Campaign for Dignity in Dying, 82% of people in the UK support a change in the law on assisted dying for terminally ill adults; 79% of “religious” people support it; and 86% of disabled people support it also.

Lord Falconer’s Private Member’s Bill, earmarked for September, has not got support from the government and therefore is unlikely to pass the Commons, despite the seemingly overwhelming public support.

The bill itself concerns relatively limited changes to the law, and nothing close to an open choice for adults, free from caveats – instead concerning terminally ill people judged to have less than six months to live and who make their own choice.

Even if it does succeed it is only directly relevant to England and Wales, and here in Northern Ireland we would still have to enact our own changes on the matter for it to apply locally (Scotland is in the same position).

While the point of principle might be a simple one, the legal practicalities of a right to die are far less clear cut.

Certainly having a solid idea of mental capacity is necessary – but this itself is an area of the law that is difficult to get right, as Scope has covered here and here.

However, whether the bill passes or fails it is likely to stoke the fires of a debate that is set to continue.

Developing debate

The Assisted Dying Bill would not provide legal endorsement for circumstances like those of former palliative care nurse, Gill Pharaoh, who recently chose to end her own life despite not being ill but simply because she did not want to be remembered “as a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley”.

“I have got so many friends with partners who, plainly, are a liability,” she told the Sunday Times, “I know you shouldn’t say that but I have this mental picture in my head of all you need to do, at my age, is break a hip and you are likely to go very much downhill from that.”

Will such a choice ever receive legal protection? Again, this is less important for the person choosing to die, who will be beyond the reach of the courts, than for friends and family, who currently could be charged for a raft of offences should they help a loved one in such circumstances.

Fears will be raised about how ironclad any system is – or can be – to ensure those taking this path do so genuinely on their own terms and on the basis of a rational choice.

One objection is that some people might be subjected to social or familial pressure to make this decision.

Furthermore, there would be fears that opening up this option might provide an opportunity for despicable cunning, whereby people are able to commit unpunishable, bureaucratic murder.

Then, against all that, there is the question of whether it is in any way humane to force someone to continue to exist - perhaps with extreme physical limitations, perhaps with unstoppable mental deterioration on the horizon, perhaps in constant pain with no possible relief - when it is really, truly not what they want.

This debate is set to run and run.

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