Euthanasia and Perverse Incentives

Debbie Purdy is a British woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. Worried about her degenerating condition, she has planned to end her life at the Swiss clinic, Dignitas, which practices euthanasia for people with crippling medical conditions. The story entered the media when she challenged the British High Court to specify whether or not they would prosecute her husband if he went with her to Switzerland. Yesterday the High Court ruled that they would not provide any special advice about the likelihood of prosecution.

A key feature of this case is that the current law is creating a perverse incentive. Debbie Purdy has said that she is not prepared to risk the prosecution of her husband and thus in the absence of an advisory indicating he would not be prosecuted, she would travel to Dignitas by herself. However, since her condition is debilitating, she would have to undergo the travel and euthanasia at an earlier stage of the illness if she was to do it all by herself. The law would thus make things worse for her, as she would die while her life was still bearable and furthermore, she would die away from her husband. It would also be worse from the British Government’s point of view as presumably if they see euthanasia as bad, then premature euthanasia would be worse.

It is important to note that the existence of this perverse incentive is not enough on its own to show that the law should be changed. For example, the laws against the use of hard drugs mean that these drugs are unregulated, which makes them more dangerous for those who want to take them. This is a serious issue, but it is not enough to show that it would be better for hard drugs to be legalized, as the benefits to the existing users would likely be outweighed by harms to other new users.

What the existence of these perverse incentives does is to add additional urgency to a reconsideration of the UK law on euthanasia. At the moment, the government walks a strange line on the issue. Euthanasia is illegal in the UK and will be prosecuted. Helping someone to travel abroad for euthanasia is also illegal in the UK, but is unlikely to result in prosecution. It is often internally convenient for governments to have such laws that have vague applicability and significant discretion in prosecution, but it creates serious difficulties for those people like Debbie Purdy and her husband who are subject to them. The time is right for the government to have a serious debate about euthanasia and to rethink these laws.

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