Why humanists oppose assisted suicide

Professor Kevin Yuill, a Better Way ally and CEO of Humanists Against Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (HAASE), sets out his reasons for opposing ‘assisted dying’.

As an atheist, I find I am at odds with most of my fellow humanists on the issue of legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia (ASE). The issue is not simply one of “religious dogma” versus “enlightened rationalism”, as it is often characterized. There are excellent secular reasons to oppose legalised ASE

First, we should be clear in our language. Many atheists who claim to reject mythology and face facts use the marketing term “assisted dying” uncritically. If a doctor hands you a gun and you shoot yourself, that’s assisted suicide. If she hands you a rope and you hang yourself, that’s assisted suicide. But if she hands you poison and you ingest it knowingly and with the intention of ending your life, we are meant to believe that it is not suicide but ‘assisted dying’? Let’s face facts.

Moreover, the term ‘assisted dying’ does not help public understanding. In a UK poll conducted in 2021, when asked ‘What do you understand by the term “assisted dying”?’, 42 per cent of Brits polled thought it meant ‘Giving people who are dying the right to stop life-prolonging treatment’. This is a right that we already have.

I am against a change in the 1961 Suicide Act, not to the rare situations where death is hastened as a byproduct of preventing suffering. Assisting a suicide should remain a crime, as should giving someone a lethal injection, even at their request. I am not against someone hastening their own death by refusing medical treatment or refusing food and water, which is already legal, because individual freedom from unwanted physical intervention trumps our need as a society to save lives.

There are four reasons why humanists should join with religious folk in opposing legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia. First, it is not necessary, being built on an irrational fear of a bad death. Second, though many who support the campaign do so out of compassion, utility is the real force behind campaigns; some citizens—particularly those who are disabled or elderly—are inevitably valued less than others. Third, evidence shows where it has been legalized, real harms have occurred. Fourth, one need not believe in God to conclude that we, as a society, should strive to prevent rather than assist or encourage suicide. Let’s take these arguments in turn.

Instilling fear of a bad death

Many of us have witnessed difficult deaths. But organizations like Dignity in Dying play on our fears. In 2019, the CEO of Hospice UK, a charity that works with those experiencing death, dying and bereavement, publicly chastised Dignity in Dying for the ‘sensationalist and inaccurate’ portrayal of death in a video to accompany its ‘The Inescapable Truth’ campaign.

Dignity in Dying removed that particular video but it continues to claim that 17 people will suffer as they die every day. What it does not say is that that number is about 1% of an estimated 1,700 people who die every day in the UK.

ASE is about utility

ASE’s progressive image is undeserved. Euthanasia was most often regarded as a branch of the campaign for eugenics  – “negative eugenics” – when it was first raised as an idea.

In 1920 Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche published a pamphlet entitled Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living. They argued that ‘there are indeed human lives in whose continued preservation all rational interest has permanently vanished’. The German psychiatrist and neurologist Robert Gaupp targeted mentally disabled people when he said that it was time to remove ‘the burden of the parasites’. In this context, we need to remember that Canada today is considering extending euthanasia to those who suffer only from mental illness.

Though not often mentioned, utility continues to be motivation behind assisted suicide. A Canadian government report entitled Cost Estimate for Bill C-7 “Medical Assistance in Dying” sees savings of up to $53,264 [DS1] [KY2] per patient with ASE.


Real harms occur where ASE is legal. Though every country where it is legal justified changing the law with cases involving the terminally ill, using death as a solution for medical and social problems followed. Thirty-nine people suffering only from autism and/or other intellectual disabilities—nearly half of them under fifty—have been euthanized in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legal since 2002. One was an autistic man in his twenties. His record said that he was a victim of regular bullying, that he ‘had felt unhappy since childhood’, and that he ‘longed for social contacts but was unable to connect with others’. On this basis, and on his request, his doctor euthanized him.

Across the Low Countries (Belgium legalized euthanasia only in 2003), prisoners, children, those suffering only from dementia, and young people with clinical depression have been euthanised[DS3] [KY4] [KY5] .

Given that, in one large study, over half of patients predicted to die within a particular period of time lived longer than expected, it is likely that thousands of people who have died from euthanasia have had their lives cut short. Those who, like me, oppose capital punishment worry that innocent people will be killed by an imperfect system, yet few seem to use the same reasoning when it comes to ASE.

The future of suicide prevention

Perhaps the biggest harms, however, are intangible. There are signs, particularly with the Covid crisis, that some no longer adhere to the principle that human lives—whether rich or poor, black or white, old or young—are equally worthy of protection. We view suicide as generally negative because we value our fellow human beings, even if they do not value themselves. Not all suicides are wrong, but it should be our basic position that we prevent suicides when we can.

As the humanist sociologist and pioneering author of Suicide, Emile Durkheim, remarked over a hundred years ago:

. . . suicide must be classed among immoral acts; for in its main principle it denies [the] religion of humanity. . . . No matter that the guilty person and the victim are one and the same . . . If violent destruction of a human life revolts us as a sacrilege, in itself and generally, we cannot tolerate it under any circumstances.

Legalising assisted dying would be a huge step in the wrong direction. It will lead to some people’s lives—on physical, or sometimes mental grounds—being deemed as not worth living. That would be a dire and dangerous situation. There is wisdom yet in the famous old Christian precept, Thou shalt not kill.