Should it be legal to help an ill person die?

7th June 2013 at 01:00
Two men are fighting for the right to choose death - and for protection for the people who help them to end their lives

A new legal battle was launched in Britain last month over the right for people with severe health problems to call on doctors, family or friends to help them die.

Paul Lamb, 57, a former builder paralysed in a road accident 23 years ago, and another man with locked-in syndrome, known only as Martin, took their cause to the Court of Appeal in London, England. Both want help to end their lives.

Lamb wants a doctor to help him die by lethal injection, and would like the court to guarantee that nobody who assisted him would be charged with murder.

Martin wants current legal guidelines on assisted suicide to be loosened to allow a medical professional to help him die.

Their cases come after that of Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome and last year fought in the High Court for the right to die. He died of natural causes a week after losing his bid. Lamb has taken over Nicklinson's claim.

In the UK, it is an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or suicide attempt.

Why, you could ask your students, is this such an emotive and controversial subject? Should people have the right to request that doctors help them to end their lives? What are the potential pitfalls of allowing this to happen?

In a statement, Lamb said: "I am in pain every single hour of every single day. I have lived with these conditions for a lot of years and have given it my best shot. I feel I cannot and do not want to keep living."

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said that the court's decision would be based not on sympathy for the plaintiffs' plight but on legal principles alone.

Lamb's case is supported by the British Humanist Association, which wants people to have the right to request doctor-assisted death in certain circumstances.

But Dominica Roberts, a spokesperson for campaign group Care Not Killing, which is on the opposite side of the debate, said: "It would be very dangerous to give (doctors) the authority to kill."

She added that although there are a small number of "firm-minded people" such as Nicklinson and Lamb, "on the other side you have ... perhaps hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people whom the law protects by the absolute blanket 'thou shalt not kill'".


What is the law on the right to die? Can doctors or family members help a person to end their life?

What would the legal consequences of this be?

What are the stances of different religions on voluntary and assisted death?

What ethical or legal problems might arise if individuals or organisations were given the right to help someone die?


Words of determination

It can take 13-year-old student Adam Bojelian a whole day to write a line of verse and months to complete a song. He has severe cerebral palsy and other complex problems, and communicates only through blinking. But despite his disabilities, he has become a campaigner for disability rights.

His mother Zoe saw how much Adam (pictured) loved music when he was at playgroup, and noticed that he would blink every time children clapped their hands during a song. It was the start of a long process. Adam, who attends Forthview Primary School in Edinburgh, Scotland, wrote his first poem aged 9 and now writes by blinking to choose words from a list or letters from an alphabet chart.

Earlier this year, his song Coming out of the Ghetto, about disability rights, made the final four in the lyrics category of Amnesty International's Power of Our Voices song competition. Read the lyrics of Adam's song at: bit.lyAmnestySong

For details of next year's Power of Our Voices contest (open from September), visit


A matter of life and death

People have always been fascinated by death. But attitudes have changed significantly since the times of the ancient Greek, Egyptian, Roman and Native American cultures that believed in an afterlife and spent much of their time preparing for it.

In those societies, the dead were honoured and feared. But between the 17th and 19th centuries, attitudes in Western civilisations changed dramatically. Death was romanticised, and personified in art and literature. The old notions of heaven and hell that had motivated people faded as scientific theories overtook religious belief in an afterlife.

During the late 19th and 20th centuries, attitudes to death changed again and it began to be viewed with dread by many. In the mid-20th century, poet Dylan Thomas wrote: "Do not go gentle into that good nightOld age should burn and rave at close of dayRage, rage, against the dying of the light."

Today, the fear of death is exacerbated by increases in medical skill and medical intervention, which have "tamed" death, according to David San Filippo, writing on attitudes to death and dying for National Louis University in Chicago, US.

But he goes on to argue that, as science and technology fail to answer many questions regarding life and death, religious and spiritual practices have increased in the US. He says it is estimated that more than 5 per cent of the US population claim to have had a "near death" experience.


Consider arguments for and against euthanasia in two lessons from chadwick77. bit.lyLessonsOnEuthanasia

Explore Christian views on assisted suicide in a series of activities from jerseyperson. bit.lyExploringEuthanasia

Find out about disability rights and the obstacles that disabled people can face in a lesson from TES Connect partner Discover Human Rights. bit.lyDisabilityRightsLesson

Use videos of people talking about their experiences, shared by TES Connect partner Youthhealthtalk, to explore bereavement. bit.lyVideo Bereavement


It's all right to cry

Loss affects people in different ways, so it can often be difficult to tell when a teenager is suffering as a result of bereavement.

Tears and sadness are expected, but more extreme symptoms can include aggression, drug use or self-harm. Bereavement counsellors say that although some young people seek help, others try to "bury" their suffering.

It is difficult enough for parents and families to help children cope, but for teachers it can be even more of a minefield. Guidance suggests taking the young person aside and telling them that it is OK to grieve and feel sad. Let them know that grief is a normal emotion.

Make it clear that they can talk to you if they need to, but offer other ways for them to express their emotions, such as painting or drawing, keeping a journal or exercising to improve and stabilise their mood. They may wish to plant a tree as a memorial, or join a charity to raise funds in honour of their lost loved one.

Most of all, students need to know that it is all right to cry.


Find out how you can support bereaved young people with resources from TES Connect partner Child Bereavement UK. bit.lyChildBereavement

Debate assisted dying using a guide from TES Connect partner instituteofideas. bit.lyAssistedDying

Introduce your class to the basics of news writing in TESEnglish's activity. bit.lyNewsReportWriting

EmmyCD's lesson considers how news stories are reported and why some are given more prominence than others. bit.lyNewsValues.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today