Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Life and Death

What’s wrong with assisted dying

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 29 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3755
  1. Iona Heath, president, Royal College of General Practitioners
  1. iona.heath22{at}

Campaigns in support of assisted dying seem to be predicated on an excessively rosy view of society and the individuals within it, says Iona Heath, writing in a personal capacity

Within a relatively recent historical context, which includes the involvement of doctors in state sponsored killings, personified by Josef Mengele, and the devastating private enterprise of Harold Shipman, the apparently burgeoning enthusiasm for assisted dying seems perhaps a little surprising. The common assertion is that allowing doctors to help people to die, within a carefully regulated framework of strict safeguards, will relieve more suffering than it causes. I am not so sure, and I can identify two main reasons for my discomfort.

The first is a deep concern that it will be impossible to draft a law robust enough to protect the vulnerable. As the philosopher Onora O’Neill made clear, speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine in June 2010, support for assisted dying is based on respect for individual autonomy, yet the influence that one person can have on another makes legislation to permit assisted dying intrinsically risky. Most of the discussion of and support …

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