Rationalising Suicide

Life, death, liberty, and the state.

Michael Irwin is an ex-GP and former Medical Director of the United Nations. He is a humanist and secular activist, who, since 2005, has sponsored the National Secular Society's £5000 Secularist of the Year award, known as the Irwin Prize. He is a prominent campaigner for voluntary euthanasia.

We asked him about the relationship between the state and the individual in matters of life, death, and liberty.          


The government often takes measures to keep us from self-harm, but is this a violation of liberal principles?

Of course not. Four other European countries – Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Switzerland – have the right attitudes. Their governments have adopted good right-to-die laws, which I believe should be applied to the UK.

Is the state too overbearing or is the balance between freedom and protection just right?

In the UK today, in general, this balance is about right. But, basically, the right to die is a philosophical and medical matter. Firstly, who owns my body (if I am mentally competent)? Secondly, as any competent person can refuse medical treatment, then I should have the right to ask a compassionate doctor to help me end my life if I am suffering unbearably.

A liberal society is one in which we are free to act as we wish so long as we do not harm other people. Do you agree?

Yes. But that being said, it would be wise to fully inform one's family if selecting either doctor-assisted suicide (if suffering unbearably) or voluntary euthanasia. But, and this is important, the family should not be able to overrule the patient if the latter is mentally competent.

Should we demand the liberty to damage our bodies, whether for pleasure or as an escape from pain, or would this undermine the sanctity of human life?

The "sanctity of life" is only a real problem for deeply religious people. God did not create me – my parents did. Again, if I am suffering unbearably, and am mentally competent, then I should have the right to ask a doctor to help me die.

Is the right to death as important as the right to life?

Basically, yes. But, remember the April 2002 statement by the European Court of Human Rights: "In an era of growing medical sophistication, combined with longer life expectancies, many people are concerned that they should not be forced to linger on in old age, or in states of advanced physical or mental decrepitude which conflict with strongly held ideas of self and personal identity".

Being almost 83 now, I fully support the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide which I established in December 2009, on international Human Rights Day, December 10th.

Are you optimistic about the next discussion of the bill on assisted dying?

I would hope that Lord Falconer's Bill will pass this year. But, this only provides the option of assisted suicide for the "terminally ill" (those likely to die within six months) and is based on the "US model", what is possible today in Oregon, Vermont and Washington State. We should following the "European model", providing doctor-assisted suicide and/or voluntary euthanasia for all competent adults who suffer from severe physical medical problems (the terminally ill, the severely disabled and the elderly).

Image credit: A Pasquier

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