Bioethics Blogs

‘Being a burden’: a illegitimate ground for assisted dying

The issue of the legality in England and Wales of physician-assisted suicide has recently been revisited by the Court of Appeal. Judgment is awaited. The judgment of the Court of Appeal, granting permission for judicial review, is here.

The basic issue before the Court of Appeal was the same as that in Nicklinson v Ministry of Justice and R (Purdy) v DPP: does the right to determine how one lives ones private life (protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights)  confer a right to have an assisted death?

Many factors have been said to be relevant to decisions about assisted dying. They include are intractable pain (rather a weak criterion, given modern palliative methods), hopeless prognosis – likely to result in death in a short time, and simple autonomy (‘It’s my right to determine where, when, and in what circumstances I end my life, and that’s an end of the matter’). One factor, commonly in the minds of patients asking for help in ending their lives, but rarely mentioned by advocates of assisted dying, is that the patient feels that she is a burden to her family and carers.

A recent systematic review of the literature concluded that 19-65% of terminally ill patients felt that they were a burden to others.  The 2016 Report relating to the Oregon Death with Dignity Act  concluded that 48.9% of patients whose lives were ended under the Act cited seeking an assisted death cited ‘being a burden’ as one of their concerns.

Concern about being a burden should not be a criterion to which any law relating to assisted dying should be permitted to have regard.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.