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Prof Julian Savulescu has published 1 article

5 Minute Tute: The right to die

Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics Professor Julian Savulescu argues for a change in the law.
Prof Julian Savulescu on Thursday 20th November 2008
Photograph: Mark Hillary


Savulescu's explanation is threefold. Firstly, because some lives become so painful due to illness that they are no longer worth living. Secondly, humans should have the right to determine our own lives, including how we die. This is a matter of free will and self-determination. Lastly, one of things that matters most to people is how and when they die. The state has no right to compel us to anything, when we are not harming other people, including continuing to live.


Opposition to change in the law is led by religious groups who subscribe to the sanctity of life at all costs, says Savulescu. He is of the opinion that religious views are being imposed on those who have different, non-religious values. Some view this as a new form of discrimination against the non-religious. The issue is particularly divisive and provocative because it involves killing human beings, including, those who are frail and sick.


Pro-life groups such as the Medical Ethics Alliance affirm the unique value of all human life, its God given dignity as giving rise to a consequent right to protection in law. They argue that all persons are of inestimable worth, irrespective of illness or disability. Furthermore, another fear is that a right to die could lead to pressure on those who are vulnerable, such as the elderly and dependent, to take their own lives to avoid being a burden on others. Savulescu argues however that such anxieties are better addressed by proper legislation than forcing those with terrible lives to live against their will.


Savulescu says he is one of a growing number that believe rational people wish to control the circumstances of the end of their lives. "It is only a matter of time before assisted suicide and euthanasia are permitted, if we are a sane, humanitarian society. It is "playing God" to compel people to live, to deny people the means to end their lives in a dignified and compassionate way. It should and will be that each of us decides for his or her own life how and when we die." This view was reflected in the 1996 British Social Attitudes Survey which, found that 82% of the public believe people suffering from painful, incurable diseases should have the right to ask their doctors for help to die. Every opinion poll since then has produced similar results. There are a number of groups such as Dignity in Dying who devote themselve to canvassing for a change in the law.


Dignity in Dying, a group at the forefront of those campaigning for a right to die claim that the current law is uncertain and arbitrary. Changing attitudes and the sensitive nature of the issue mean there is a dicrepancy between what the law says and what the law does. The current law, they say, inflicts a terrible ethical dilemnia on patients, families and doctors resulting in covert euthanasia, mercy killings and premature suicides. Furthemore, an increasing number of UK citizens are travelling to Dignitas, an organisation in Switzerland that helps people to die. About 30 UK citizens have died there. Family members who accompany them can be prosecuted under the Suicide Act 1961. Dignitas has however come under criticism for assisting the suicides of people who are not terminally ill and not mentally competent.


In October 2008, MS sufferer Diane Purdy lost a high court case in which her legal team argued the right to respect for her private and personal life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, was being breached because of lack of clarity in the law. At the case Lord Justice Scott Baker expressed, "great sympathy for Ms Purdy, her husband and others in a similar position who wish to know in advance whether they will face prosecution for doing what many would regard as something that the law should permit, namely to help a loved one go abroad to end their suffering when they are unable to do it on their own. This would involve a change in the law. The offence of assisted suicide is very widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances; only Parliament can change it."



Prof David Jones
21st November at 7.45am
Dan James committed suicide because he thought his life was not worth living with disability. He had been a sportsman and his active life was important to him. Should society agree to this value judgment? The key issue is not suicide but 'assistng' suicide. It is a question of the value judgments of others, and of soceity, and these should value the lives of all, including those with disability.
Pauline Gately
21st November at 7.21pm
Professor Savulescu suggests that âproper legislation' could prevent people from feeling obliged to opt for assisted suicide if it legalised. How? Once assisted suicide is legalised it will be seen as an acceptable option and those who feel they are a burden may well feel a moral obligation to take it. The current law protects the many and must not be changed for the sake of a determined few.
Dr Trevor Stammers
21st November at 9.27pm
You don't have to be religious to see that the 'right to die' will soon turn into the duty to die. No safeguards to try to prevent doctors or relatives abusing legalised euthanasia in the UK will be as effective as keeping euthanasia illegal. In every place such as Oregon where doctors are allowed to help the terminally ill to die, helping the depressed etc to die always follows.
Lewis Eastham
22nd November at 11.26am
We can all agree that killing is wrong because dying is a great harm. Surely we should reevaluate if continued life itself becomes a great harm?