NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 22, 2009

It used to be an issue just for the terminally ill.  Now as populations around the world age, governments are increasingly being confronted with the taboo idea of dying as something people can volunteer to do, says Reuters. 

As the proportion of older people increases rapidly in countries such as the United States, Australia, Japan, Germany and Britain, the suggestion of an option to escape indignity could spur political tremors.  "The demand for the option, if not the practice, is growing rapidly," said Dr. Philip Nitschke, 61, founder and director of the pro-euthanasia group Exit International, according to Reuters.

Littered with ethical red flags -- particularly around the possibility that families or organizations may encourage the elderly or infirm to end their lives -- the issue of assisted suicide has been forced up the British political agenda:

  • In Britain, nearly 20 percent of the population is over 65 -- a proportion the Office for National Statistics predicts will have grown by 50 percent by 2020.
  • So far 117 Britons have travelled abroad for an assisted death and 30 more are preparing to go.
  • In Britain helping someone commit suicide is a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

Calls for reform and a legal decision in July forced the government to promise to clarify the law.  Draft guidelines are due this month with a final version by next spring.  Derek Humphry, former president of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies said significant changes in Britain would likely not come until after a 2010 election.

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland and physician-assisted suicide -- where a doctor prescribes a lethal dose the patient may choose to drink -- is legal in the State of Washington, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Oregon.  Members of the British public are forcing the government to address the legal anomaly that turns a blind eye to assisted suicide overseas but prosecutes people if they assist a suicide in Britain, says Reuters.

The issue has polarized British medics:

  • The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which represents nearly 70 percent of nurses, moved to a neutral position from opposition to assisted suicide.
  • The British Medical Association -- the body for 70 percent of doctors -- remained strongly opposed to any form of suicide.
  • Britons who are members of Dignitas, the Swiss organization that helps terminally ill people to die, can opt to pay 6,000 Swiss francs ($5,800) for an assisted suicide.

Source:  Farah Master, "Graying Britain Looks to Assisted Suicide Reform," REUTERS, September 21, 2009.

For text: 


Browse more articles on Health Issues