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Are we sure we know what "terminal" means?

David Seymour proposes to limit his End of Life Choice Bill to those with a terminal condition with 6 months or less to live. This is a not uncommon attempt to make assisted suicide laws seem safer.   

But ask any medical professional who works with the terminally ill, and they’ll tell you that thinking someone may die in 6 months and knowing someone will die in 6 months are two completely different things. 

Just about everyone can think of a story of a family member or friend who was given 6 months to live, but who lived for years afterwards. This is because predicting death in months is more art than science. Predictions are based on the usual progress of a disease or condition, the patient’s demographics, and the individual doctor’s previous experiences – all of which can change, or be wrong, or just go a way no one anticipated. Medical professionals can be reasonably sure when a patient will die within a couple of days, but beyond that, they’re making educated predictions.

So that brings us back to limiting assisted suicide or euthanasia to those with a terminal condition. If the idea is to limit the intentional ending of a patient’s life to those who are expected to die soon, the 6-month cut off line is not a particularly good one. If you wouldn’t want someone’s life to be ended who has a year or more to live, then you can’t be sure that some who have been given a prediction of 6 months or less won’t live to see a year or more.

In the US state of Washington, assisted suicide is limited to those with six months or less to live. The state keeps track of the death records for everyone who is given a prescription for lethal drugs, and the results are quite surprising. Since passage of their assisted suicide law in 2009, 90 people have died years after they received their lethal drugs. Five people who expected to live 6 months or less in 2012 died in 2014. One person given lethal drugs in 2009 may still be alive.

Source: Washington State Department of Health, “2009 Death with Dignity Act Report” (2010); Washington State Department of Health, “2012 Death with Dignity Act Report” (2013); Washington State Department of Health, “2014 Death with Dignity Act Report” (2015); Washington State Department of Health, “2016 Death with Dignity Act Report” (2017).

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