Keir Starmer is dead wrong about assisted suicide

‘Assisted dying’ is a threat to the most vulnerable. It must be resisted.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics UK

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Keir Starmer has promised to give MPs a free vote on legalising assisted suicide if Labour wins the next UK General Election.

He made the pledge earlier this week, in response to Esther Rantzen, the veteran broadcaster who is also a vocal advocate for assisted suicide. Starmer told her: ‘I’m personally in favour of changing the law. I think we need to make time. We will make the commitment.’

Starmer may have a terrible track record when it comes to keeping his promises, but there is reason to fear that the notorious flip-flopper might actually make good on this one. He has, after all, continuously supported legalising assisted suicide. As an MP in 2015, he voted in favour of it. And when he was director of public prosecutions, in 2010, he issued guidelines that strongly discouraged prosecutions against anyone who helped a terminally ill person end their life. Indeed, his position on assisted dying may be the only consistent one he has ever held.

It looks as if the UK public backs Starmer, too. Earlier this week, a poll found that the vast majority of voters support changing the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia. Those in favour would do well to look elsewhere around the world to see where introducing a ‘right to die’ has led.

Starmer has promised that any change in the UK law must be accompanied by ‘safeguards with teeth to protect the vulnerable’ from abuse. But herein lies the fundamental problem with legalising assisted dying. In almost every country where it has been legalised, the safeguards that were initially put in place have been trampled on. Like a cancer, the so-called right to die inevitably spreads.

Canada is perhaps the most grim example of this. In less than a decade, its Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) programme has expanded to a dystopian degree. When it was first introduced in 2016, euthanasia was only legal when a patient’s death was ‘reasonably foreseeable’. Now, just about anybody suffering from an illness or disability can access a state-sponsored death. In 2027, the law is set to expand further still to allow those suffering with mental illness to apply for MAID.

This has happened to a similar but lesser extent in those US states where assisted dying is legal. Places like Oregon and California are often held aloft by campaigners as stalwart examples of where safeguards have kept limits on who can access an assisted death. But even there they have clearly failed. Assisted suicide is being offered to an ever-wider section of the population. Laws to expand assisted-suicide eligibility were passed in California (2021), Hawaii (2023), Oregon (2019 and 2023), Vermont (2022 and 2023) and Washington State (2023). In the past three years alone, the criteria for assisted dying has expanded, or is in the process of expanding, in half the US states where it is legal.

Expansion of the criteria is a feature, not a bug, of assisted-suicide laws. Once the right to die is enshrined in law, safeguards are almost immediately called into question by those who feel they are suffering unbearably, but do not qualify under the existing rules. There’s a grim logic to it. When death comes to be seen as the best treatment for suffering, then how can the state deny it to anyone who suffers?

As a result, some truly disturbing cases have emerged from the places where assisted dying is legal. In Alberta, Canada, a 27-year-old autistic woman was approved for MAID earlier this year. Her father has gone to court to try to stop her from being euthanised. He has argued that, aside from her autism diagnosis, she is perfectly healthy. Despite this, two doctors signed off on her death. The case is still ongoing.

It’s a similar story in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legal since 2002. Between 2012 and 2021, 39 people suffering only from autism and / or other intellectual disabilities have been euthanised. Nearly half of them were under 50.

One such case was an autistic man in his twenties. His record said that he was a victim of regular bullying, that he ‘had felt unhappy since childhood’ and that he ‘longed for social contacts but was unable to connect with others’. On this basis, and on his request, his doctor euthanised him.

The essential problem with assisted suicide is that it turns death into a ‘solution’ to life’s problems. It does not alleviate people’s suffering. It merely encourages them to seek death, as an alternative to decent medical treatment or proper social support. Keir Starmer ought to think twice before setting the UK down this path. For once, his flip-flopping would be more than welcome.

Kevin Yuill is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Sunderland and CEO of Humanists Against Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (HAASE).

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Topics Politics UK


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