Obliging some or protecting all?

Exit’s decision to extend its services to the elderly should give us pause for thought

Reports that the Swiss assisted suicide organisation Exit is to extend its services to people who are elderly but not terminally ill should give us pause for thought.  Some may see this in a positive light, as offering elderly people who are tired of living a facility for taking their leave.  It was no doubt with this compassionate perspective in mind that Exit’s Vice-President commented (according to press reports) that under the organisation’s existing regime “doctors must take tests and talk to patients for hours asking them to justify their motivation” and that “old patients feel they do not have the energy for all of this”.

But what to some might seem a burdensome process of assessment provides protection for others who may be less clear in their minds about wanting to end their lives or who may be feeling influenced, however subtly, by others.  This tension between obliging a strong-minded minority and protecting other, more vulnerable people lies at the heart of the ‘assisted dying’ debate. 

Exit’s decision to relax its rules also illustrates the essentially-arbitrary nature of any parameters for assisted suicide.  For example, if compassion is seen as an underlying principle of such assistance, on what grounds can assisting the suicides of people who are terminally ill and expected to die in the near future be justified but not assisting the suicides of others who may have equally distressing chronic or degenerative conditions and longer to live with them?

The law that we have now in Britain rests on the clear and unambiguous principle that we do not involve ourselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of other people, irrespective of their age, gender, race – or state of health.  We should think very carefully before abandoning that principle.