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Five Words for Assisted Dying


Motivated by Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, but with one eye on any possible future legislation, I consider the justifications that might be offered for limiting assistance in dying to those who are suffering unbearably from terminal illness. I argue that the terminal illness criterion and the unbearable suffering criterion are not morally defensible separately: that a person need be neither terminally ill (or ill at all), nor suffering unbearably (or suffering at all) to have a right to assisted dying. Indeed: I shall suggest that the unbearable suffering criterion undermines the Bill (or any proposal like it) wholesale. On the other hand, the criteria taken together are defensible, and this defence would be built on a concern for the protection of the vulnerable. However, I also claim that this implies that the law might justifiably—and maybe even properly—aim to prevent a person from gaining access to that to which they have a serious moral right. This seems paradoxical, and, towards the end of the paper, I seek to tease apart the paradox.

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Thanks to Eleanor Curran (Keele), and to Margot Brazier, Becki Bennett and David Gurnham (Manchester) for comments and suggestions. Thanks also to the two anonymous Law and Philosophy reviewers for their suggestions for improvement and their gratifyingly encouraging comments.

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Correspondence to Iain Brassington.

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Brassington, I. Five Words for Assisted Dying. Law and Philos 27, 415–444 (2008).

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  • Keywords
  • Assisted suicide
  • Autonomy
  • Euthanasia
  • Suffering
  • Terminal illness