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Assisted dying would turn doctors into executioners

A majority of Britons may support the Bill, but that's also true of the death penalty

Clayton Lockett’s death by lethal injection earlier this year in Oklahoma brought a storm of criticism of Oklahoma’s death penalty procedures. Lockett mumbled, writhed, blinked his eyes and licked his lips throughout the procedure and took over 30 minutes to die. The Los Angeles Times observed: “The Oklahoma case is sure to be cited as strong evidence that state prison authorities cannot be trusted to capably administer lethal injections.”

But today the House of Lords is debating whether to invest British doctors with the same powers as the Oklahoma state prison authorities. Doctors will effectively become executioners if Lord Falconer’s Bill becomes law.

Why do liberals who, like me, think that capital punishment is unacceptable in a civilized society rush to support Falconer’s Bill? Beyond simply the method of dispatching people, there are many other similarities. If the premeditated killing of a human being by the state, even for the best possible reasons, is wrong, assisted dying is wrong.

Of course, there are important differences between assisted dying and capital punishment. But the similarities bear scrutiny in relation to today’s debate.

Dignity in Dying proudly state that a majority of Britons support assisted dying. True, but also true of the death penalty in the UK; about 60% would like it re-instated.

This brings up an important point. Both measures are not simply about the individuals concerned – just as there are few executions of only the most vile individuals (it would be hard to find a better candidate than Lockett, who shot his victim and then buried her while she was still breathing), there would be only around a thousand a year who would elect for an assisted death. Their stories are often as tragic as Lockett’s is despicable. But hard cases do not make wise law nor do they justify overriding an important principle.

Assisted dying has the noble aim of reducing suffering. However, as the Oregon Death With Dignity reports demonstrate, this suffering is not physical pain, which is not amongst the top five reasons why some opt for assisted deaths; loss of autonomy, of enjoyment of life’s activities, and dignity are the top three. It would be difficult to dismiss the pain and suffering of the grieving friends and relatives of Lockett’s victim that might be alleviated by bringing “closure” through  his execution.

Of course, Falconer’s Bill differs in that it is based on the wishes of the patient. Many state executions are also voluntary; 11 per cent of all executions since 1977 in the US involved “volunteers” – prisoners who waived their right to appeal. Does that make these executions right and the others wrong?

The maxim “it is better to let ten guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man” is often heard in the debate over capital punishment. The possibility of mistakes worries many about the death penalty. It is worth keeping mind the fact that both processes are irreversible.

Are the terminally-ill are the best candidates for death; are their lives somehow less valuable than those of child-rapists and murderers? Is there less chance of dealing with their depression than there is reforming death row prisoners?

The danger of Falconer’s Bill is less slippery slope than moral rubicon. If we are to place value on even the most wretched of human lives – an important marker of civilization – neither the death penalty nor assisted dying can be justified. If we go down either road, we sacrifice something of our humanity.

Dr Kevin Yuill is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Sunderland, and author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal,Humanist Case Against Legalization