FATE member and Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, Ben Colburn, has written to the editor of the Independent in response to an article which quotes Care Not Killing’s CEO Dr Gordon Macdonald.
The article shares the work of Humanists UK, who have created a map showing the differences in assisted dying laws around the world. Dr Macdonald responds to this map with a number of claims, such as that there is “widespread discrimination of vulnerable people” where assisted dying laws have been passed and that “legalising EAS (euthanasia and assisted suicide) can lead to an increase in the suicide rate of the general population.”
Prof Colburn sets out his arguments as to why he believes that Dr Macdonald has incorrectly interpreted the research on the correlation between assisted suicide and non-assisted suicide, and why a safeguarded assisted dying law is the best way to protect vulnerable people at the end of life.
Read the original article in the Independent here:
Read Prof Colburn’s response below:
A recent article (‘New map shows difference in assisted dying laws around the world’, Sinead Butler, 19 July 2021) quotes Dr Gordon Macdonald, of the campaign group Care Not Killing, arguing against legalising assisted dying. He argues that it would be a regressive move by dint of ignoring ‘widespread discrimination against the elderly and disabled people’, as well as ‘the growing body of research showing legalising EAS can lead to an increase in the suicide rate in the general population’. I think it is worth addressing both these points, to explain why (unlike Dr Macdonald) I think legalising assisted dying is a progressive move.
First, Dr Macdonald alludes to discrimination, but the evidence he refers to just confirms what we already know: people who take up the option of assisted dying tend to be people who are vulnerable in various ways. Dr Macdonald’s response to that vulnerability is to disempower people by refusing them the right to choose. My view is that we should take the same approach here as we do in other domains where people are vulnerable. Rather than doubling down on it, we should empower people at the end of life: give knowledge, safeguards and support, and respect people’s autonomy to decide these important questions for themselves. That means supporting a range of options. Like Dr Macdonald, I think it is important to fund palliative care, because that will be the right option for some people. But it’s not an either/or: assisted dying must be part of the picture.
Second, Dr Macdonald relies on a mistaken reading of research on the relationship between assisted dying and non-assisted suicide. He refers to one study from 2015 which analysed data from four small-medium US states and concluded that legalising assisted dying coincided with a rise in non-assisted suicides. The study is equivocal about whether that rise is statistically significant, and it also shows only correlation, rather than causation. There is no suggestion that legalising assisted dying causes more suicides. A contemporary commentary speculated about whether there might be a connection. But the strongest hypothesis – ‘social contagion’, or the copycat effect – has nothing to do with the legal status of assisted dying.
The reason I and most of my fellow Scottish citizens support the proposal to legalise assisted dying is not because it prevents suicide, but because it prevents unchosen suffering. Let’s not misappropriate old research to oppose that widely accepted principle. This change has been implemented in many jurisdictions since that 2015 study. Let’s draw on experience from those jurisdictions to design safeguards for a Scottish assisted dying law. That’s the best way to offer protection to the vulnerable, while also upholding autonomy in the face of our multiple vulnerabilities at end of life.
Professor Ben Colburn
University of Glasgow”
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