Medical assistance in dying is another name for physician assisted suicide
The rebranding should not blind us to the risks involved.
The argument for what is now called ‘assisted dying’ is often framed in terms of personal autonomy – the right to choose the time and mode of one’s death.
Individuals included in media reports as pressing for that right are typically mentally competent, educated, and supported by a partner or family member who affirms their desire to die. Campaigners pressing for change suggest (at times in strikingly gothic terms) that if their wishes are denied, the likely alternative is a difficult death during which pain is inadequately treated and distressing symptoms are mismanaged. ‘Assisted dying’ is thereby positioned as a form of patient-centred care – a death with ‘dignity’.
Put like this, the case can seem incontrovertible. Who wouldn’t want a ‘dignified death’ in which their own wishes were central to any decisions about their treatment? But this is a narrow and unbalanced way of framing the discussion; it fails to communicate the full range of questions that arise when thinking about serious illness. “Assisted dying’ is a euphemism for physician assisted suicide; it involves prescribing lethal drugs to somebody who will then self-administer them to end their life. Framing the practice like this gives a different perspective that is masked by the rebadging as assisted dying. What we know about suicide more widely becomes relevant in informing what we think about doctor-assisted suicide.
People living with severe, persistent physical illness can of course feel that their condition is intolerable. Indeed, research shows that about one in ten describe having thoughts that their life is not worth living, or that they might be better off dead. And suicide rates in people with a severe health condition are double those of the general population. Even so, recent data from the Office for National Statistics suggest that in absolute terms fewer than 10% of suicides are in people with a severe health condition. Some of the study findings come as a surprise; for example of 17,195 suicides identified from 2014-2017, only 58 (0.3%) were in people with what the study called low survival cancer. This is about three times the general population suicide rate but accounts for only 3 in every 10,000 of those recorded as having low survival cancer in the study period. In other words the great majority of people (more than 99%) with negative thoughts about their circumstances do not take their own lives.
What does research into suicide in the wider population suggest might make suicide more likely? Many of the leading risks are social – loneliness, living alone, low income and lack of employment, and a lack of social support. A history of problems with alcohol or drugs is also common, especially in men. So is a history of mental health problems – typically not psychotic illness but recurrent episodes of depression. More than half of those who take their own lives have a history of previous self-harm. These risks are also prominent when suicide occurs in the setting of severe physical illness, even among those who are simultaneously in contact with mental health services.
Suicide associated with severe physical illness occurs most commonly in the first year after diagnosis, especially in the first six months. This observation is in line with research showing that rather than intolerable and untreatable symptoms it is concerns about the future and loss of independence that motivate many requests for physician-assisted suicide.
US psychologist Thomas Joiner has outlined an influential interpersonal theory of suicide that makes much sense of these findings. He outlines three risks for suicide – thwarted belongingness (closely-related to the idea of lack of social connectedness), perceived burdensomeness, and acquired capability (overcoming the fear of death). Thinking about suicide in this way helps us to be clearer about the nature of suicide in the physically ill and therefore ‘assisted dying’, which is a risk for exactly those people whose suicide we are used to working to prevent, by actively helping people to “acquire capability”.
The response to these concerns rests upon assurances that only carefully selected cases will be accepted into a programme of assisted suicide. We can have no confidence that such “safeguards” will be adhered to. For example in one study from the Netherlands, 12% of those accepted failed to meet the criterion of there being no alternatives for palliative treatment and 7% were not reported has experiencing unbearable suffering. I have yet to see a statement from supporters of medical assistance in dying about their opinion on what is an acceptable error rate in the system.
There is another reason for concern about doctor-assisted suicide – less tangible perhaps but with far-reaching consequences. It fundamentally changes our approach to suicide, Under the Suicide Act 1961 an act “intended to encourage or assist suicide” is a criminal offence. There are no exclusions – it is an all-encompassing approach that is reflected in our National Suicide Prevention Strategy. What is proposed is a radical overhaul of the way we approach suicide – a move away from trying to prevent all instances to a world in which we attempt to prevent suicide except when we decide to make it easier.
We are facing in medical assistance in dying a privileging of personal preference over social concern. It represents not just a modification of individual clinical practice but a societal intervention designed to change how we think about and respond to suicidal wishes. I find it hard to believe that the longer-term consequences, intended or otherwise, will be of universal benefit to those most in need of our care.