Courtesy of The Economist.com |Originally Published 07.19.2014 | Posted 02.07.2018

In a small group of countries helping someone to die is not a crime.

JO BEECHAM, who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2011, keeps a stock of poison in her fridge. She may take it when her body begins filling with fluid as a result of the disease. It would be nice to have help, she says, but she doesn’t want anyone to break the law. Though it is rarely prosecuted, assisting a suicide is banned in Britain, where she lives.

A bill now before the House of Lords would ease such dilemmas by making it legal for a doctor to help take the life of anyone who has been checked by two doctors and judged to have less than six months to live. The patient would still administer the lethal drugs. British politicians have failed to change the law before, but this bill shows more promise. Though he opposes the measure, David Cameron, the prime minister, says members of his government may vote with their conscience.

Public opinion in Western countries is strongly in favour of legalising assisted suicide. But governments have been slow to act. If Britain’s law passes, it will join only a handful of countries that allow assisted suicide in at least some cases.

Switzerland permits even adults who are neither ill nor Swiss residents to be helped to die. Dutch law covers adults and children over 12 who are suffering unbearably with no prospect of relief. In February the Belgian parliament extended the law to cover all children close to death and suffering beyond medical help. In Luxembourg and the five American states that allow it, assisted suicide is reserved for the terminally ill. In most places, save Switzerland, doctors must approve the procedure.

Several other jurisdictions are passing laws, or contemplating doing so. Last month Quebec legalised doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill residents. A committee set up by the French president, François Hollande, has recommended allowing assisted suicide in certain cases. Mr Hollande seems keen to move forward with legislation.

Courts have picked up some of the slack left by politicians. Last month one French court acquitted a doctor who gave lethal injections to seven terminally ill patients. Another ordered doctors to cease treating a man in a coma after concluding that this would have been his choice—though the European Court of Human Rights later overturned the ruling.

Traditional religious beliefs seem to play less of a role in shaping public opinion than they used to. Two prominent Anglican clergymen—Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace-prize winner, and George Carey, a former archbishop of Canterbury—have publicly supported the proposed British measure. Despite France’s Catholic heritage, support for assisted suicide is still high, and the issue has not sparked the same opposition as gay marriage. Even in America nearly half of those attending weekly religious services back physician-assisted suicide.

But when it comes to the details, there is less agreement. Even liberals have criticised Switzerland’s lax rules and Belgium’s decision to give terminally ill children the right to die. Medical advances that make it possible to keep the very ill alive for a while longer are also costly, raising fears that those not eager to die may choose suicide to ease the burden on their relatives and carers. Even countries that accept the principle of assisted suicide will find that the debate is just beginning.