Euthanasia and the Death Penalty: a Dilemma

01/08/2012 16:10 BST | Updated 01/10/2012 10:12 BST

In March, parliament debated a motion supporting the director of public prosecution's position that prosecutions of friends and family members helping terminally ill people to end their lives should be judged on individual merit, taking into account motive. Parliament passed the motion without a vote. This meant no change in law, merely agreement that assisting suicide is illegal but won't be prosecuted under certain circumstances.

There are strong arguments that this isn't good enough, that the state should put in place processes for patients to end their own life, taking matters out of the hands of family and friends, ensuring scrutiny and good practice. The British Medical Association's position is that such processes should not be introduced even though the final push of the button or taking of pills would be left in the hands of the patient.

Short of such processes in the UK, patients continue to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland, ("cap in hand" says author and campaigner Terry Pratchett) for the opportunity to end their life.

I support the right of someone with a debilitating terminal illness to end their own life, with help if needs be. I can find no good definition of 'sacred' to make an individual's life not their own - to do with as they please.

Of course, there is doing as you please on the spur of the moment or in the depths of depression or drug-induced panic, and there is doing as you please after long and careful consideration, knowing that life in the future holds only increasing suffering and deteriorating faculties. Maybe it's not straight forward to distinguish on the borders but certainly possible in many cases. This, though, is where I find myself inconsistent.

I have often argued that the death penalty is never acceptable because, however stringent the checks on the justice system, mistakes and abuses can never be completely eliminated. If one person in ten thousand is executed for a crime they did not commit, then that is one too many.

This argument I stand by, and so my dilemma is that the same argument can be made against state-assisted dying - however stringent the checks on the process, mistakes and abuses can never be eliminated. Mistakes could be made assessing the patient's soundness of mind or undue pressure could be put on a patient to end their life, for example.

Why does this argument carry less weight for me when applied to assisted dying?

The cases might look different at first glance - execution is not the subject's choice, suicide is. But where there is a mistake or an abuse, death is not truly voluntary in either case.

There are other arguments for and against either practice (religious reasons, the aim of punishment, individual rights, the role of the state) but with regards this particular argument - the unacceptable cost of mistakes and abuses - I'm stuck.

I don't believe the dilemma is inescapable. A similar argument can be made against other laws, such as motoring laws, and assisted dying is certainly about facilitating individual freedom. But when it comes to the state facilitating death, my opposition to the death penalty strikes an uneasy contrast with my support for assisted dying.