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Assisted suicide can be an act of compassion because it relieves immense suffering both for the patient and the family. Thinking that it is purely about pain is naïve, in reality terminally ill patients fear the loss of independence, dignity and function more than pain. Pain can be managed, but other regressive symptoms cannot. When considering this issue, utilitarianists think about quality of life as well as quantity of life. Sometimes assisted dying may be necessary to produce the greatest amount of happiness. There is little to be gained from keeping someone alive when they are dependent on machines to carry out basic functions.
Ultimately suicide is a tragic but conscientious moral choice. For some patients euthanasia will be seen as the ultimate expression of autonomy in that they determine the time and mode of their dying. It may be the only thing left they are able to control. If we have the right to life it follows that we should also have the right to die in our own terms. To force someone to continue living against their will could be considered torture.
Society’s views are changing regarding assisted suicide, which is demonstrated even by the change in language used. The media now refers to it as assisted dying, or mercy killing. Although it remains illegal in the UK, the public opinion is gradually changing. Even some Christians believe that it can be a charitable act. Paul Badham, an Anglican priest, wrote a book in favour of assisted suicide for both social and economic reasons. However, the Christian Medical Fellowship dismissed it: “The highly selective and infrequent use of the Bible, the pick ‘n’ mix theology, the fundamentalist view of human autonomy, and the slapdash use of Church history do not constitute a ‘Christian’ case at all.”
On the other hand, many believe that assisted suicide is not an act of compassion. These views are usually influenced by Christian teaching. The Bible speaks much about God’s control of when we die, such as Job 14:5: “Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; And his limits You have set so that he cannot pass.” There are cases of people seeking assisted suicide in the Old Testament, but these requests tend to come from disobedient characters such as Saul. Furthermore, just because the Bible records an event does not mean God approves of it. Christians would instead promote palliative care as a better option.
Furthermore, opponents of assisted suicide often cite the slippery slope argument. We are descending into a culture of death. Many opponents would fear that even the strictest of legislation would gradually be opened up until assisted suicide is available on demand. This has already been witnessed with abortion. Legislation that was supposed to only allow it in exceptional cases has been revised to a point where it is available on demand.
Finally, assisted suicide is not an act of compassion because it breaks down professional and legal norms. Doctors are supposed to be preservers of life, not bringers of death. It would transform the job description of a doctor. Assisted suicide is contrary to the Hippocratic oath, which sets forth certain ethical standards for doctors – including, “you will exercise your art purely for the cure of your patients.”
To conclude, our opinion on any form of suicide will depend on how we see our own bodies. Are they mere disposable tools, or do they have a higher, divinely ordained purpose? To quote Dignity in Dying, “An assisted dying law would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering.”