(8/14) ‘Possible Unintended Consequences’

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Assisted Dying has been asked to examine the ‘possible unintended consequences’ of a law on ‘assisted dying’. In this article I give my views, based on the law and practice in different countries.

The idea of ‘possible unintended consequences’ is very close to the idea of the ‘slippery slope’ which has been used to oppose every social change for generations. The ‘slippery slope’ argument is intended to frighten potential supporters by saying that it is not possible to say where a reform will end up. In fact, society does not fall apart after social changes. Society didn’t fall apart after the changes to the law to make available contraception or to enable divorce and marriage equality. In fact, support for ‘assisted dying’ increase in those countries where it is a available.

International experience

Two decades of experience shows that changes come slowly and after only after very careful legislative scrutiny. For example Oregon, USA, has only made one significant change to its very restrictive ‘assisted dying’ law in over 20 years. It has eliminated the 15-day waiting period between approval and receiving the prescription for the lethal medication. Hardly a ‘slippery slope’.

Canada changed its medical assistance in dying law to allow those with disabilities to avail of its provisions. In the initial law, they were excluded and some people with disabilities took a case to the Supreme Court which determined that their exclusion was discriminatory and so the law was changed after proper reflection by a special committee.

Such changes are not ‘unforeseen or unintended consequences’ or a ‘slippery slope’ — they were within the normal process of changing the law in the light of experience. In the case of ‘assisted dying’, experience showed that the safeguards work, but some categories of people or specific diseases were excluded from the provision. With experience, careful reflection and proper attention to revising the laws, changes were made.

Choice values lives

It is sometimes said that the introduction of ‘assisted dying’ will make some people feel that they are being devalued, that their lives are worth less than others’. In my view, the reverse is the case — the quality of an individual’s life is given greater value when individuals have the choice — within the law — to decide that their life is no longer worth living and that they wish to end it to avoid further suffering without the prospect of any improvement.

It is important to emphasise that in every case the decision is for the individual to make. There is no question of categories of people being considered of lesser value and forced to end their lives. That is a crude attempt to link the provision of ‘assisted dying’ with the unspeakable, murderous, Nazi death camps. It should be seen as the propaganda it is.

Alan Tuffery is a member of End of Life Ireland. We are a voluntary group advocating for legislation to allow Voluntary Assisted Dying in Ireland. This is the eighth in a series of fourteen short articles on issues about voluntary assisted dying (VAD). The first article can be found here.