Is Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide a Good Idea? – A Debate between Professors Daniel Weinstock and Margaret Somerville

Posted By Silvia Neagu – Mar. 6, 2013

This is Part 2 of the MJLH Online’s recap of the 2013 colloquium on physician-assisted suicide. To see Part 1, on the morning panel presentations, go here.

During the afternoon of the McGill Journal of Law and Health’s 2013 Colloquium, Margaret Somerville and Daniel Weinstock, two professors at McGill Faculty of Law, debated the ethical considerations surrounding physician-assisted suicide. Professor Winstock is a member of the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on End of Life Care and Professor Somerville is the author of Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide.

Framing the Issue

According to Professor Somerville, the issue requires us to consider “how we die and whether some ways of dying are ethically and legally acceptable and others are not.” For Somerville,  the inevitable conclusion to this question is that euthanasia is not ethically acceptable. She warns that the euphemistic language conceals the deeper moral issues.

On the other side of the debate, Professor Weinstock advocated that, with proper safeguards,  physician assisted suicide can be part a part of end of life care.  Weinstock emphasized that currently physician-assisted suicide is already occurring tacitly through a “hush-hush wink-wink” approach. He underlined that considering the costs and benefits associated with a change also entails considering the costs associated with maintaining the status-quo. He argued that the current situation is not costless in terms of patient pain and physicians going under the radar.

Individual Rights and Societal Implications

Weinstock emphasized that the issue involves recognition that “individuals have a prima facie interest in making decisions about how their lives are going to proceed, in all facets of their lives.”

On the other hand, Somerville pointed out that the issue should not simply be considered from the individual’s perspective, because it has significant implications at the institutional level, particularly for medicine and law, which are the two “value carrying” institutions in a secular society.

Further, she stated that the debate surrounding euthanasia involves a values conflict between respect for life and autonomy.

In response, Weinstock said that his position is not in conflict with “respect for life.” He emphasized the need to distinguish between biological life  and personhood.

Answering the “What If’s”

Weinstock stated the Commission’s recommendations would, in reality, offer greater protection than the current situation since physicians would not be able to suggest assisted dying. He stated that the change in Canada will likely come in the form prosecutorial guidelines, instructing prosecutors not charge doctors in cases which meet the requirements for physician-assisted suicide.

According to Weinstock, the argument that there will be rampant abuses and that there are currently no abuses makes a presupposition about the morality and psychology of physicians which simply does not make sense.

The “slippery slope” has already occurred in Netherlands and Belgium, according to Somerville. Further, she stated that the comparison with Quebec’s approach to abortion, which  also involved the province declining to prosecute and abortion becoming legal by default,  is not a positive example for the pro-Euthanasia side.  For Somerville, the fact that many pregnancies currently ends in abortion, indicates that legalizing euthanasia is not desirable.

Finding common ground

Despite their different perspectives, both professors emphasized the importance of strengthening palliative care and its availability.


For the first time, the online team recorded the symposium on social media by live-tweeting the event. A collection of all the tweets from the day can be found on Storify. Visit the Journal’s Facebook page to see photos from the event. 

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