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By Trevor Stammers, Director of the Centre for Bioethics and Emerging Technologies

In 2017, I published a chapter on organ donation following euthanasia in Belgium. As part of that, I outlined an argument as to why it is logically inconsistent to at the same time accept euthanasia and assisted suicide as ethical whilst viewing the death penalty as unethical. A paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology advocating the killing of prisoners at their request as ‘death with dignity for the undignified’, has added further weight to my conclusion.

My thinking on this topic had originally been triggered by Belgium’s volte-face over the case of Frank Van den Bleeken, who had been given a life sentence for convictions of serial murder and rape. He had requested euthanasia on the quite understandable grounds that his life in prison was causing him “unbearable psychological anguish.” Belgium’s Justice Minister, Koen Geens, agreed to this request and a date for Van Den Bleeken to be euthanized was set for Jan 11th 2015. Then without any explanation, the offer of euthanasia was suddenly withdrawn and the prisoner was transferred to the Netherlands.

Perhaps it would have been more compassionate to have him transferred to California, the source of this latest call for ‘death with dignity’ for prisoners in the Journal Of Criminal Law and Criminology? As Kathleen Messenger, its American author, quite rightly points out, “As states continue to contemplate and pass legislation that permits aid in dying in particular circumstances, one is left wondering how if at all, this legislation will affect those incarcerated.”

Just to be clear ‘aid in dying’ is not what in the UK we might call ‘palliative care’; it is the increasing prevalent euphemism world-wide for assisted suicide and/or euthanasia, depending on the jurisdiction. If the author were arguing for parity of palliative care for terminally ill prisoners with those not incarcerated she would have my full support. It is true she does make it clear in the article that she is only suggesting equal access to physician assisted suicide for terminally ill prisoners but she seems unaware of prisoners who are not terminally ill such as Van den Bleeken who could justifiably claim enduring more “unbearable suffering” because there is no end in sight with a life sentence unlike those prisoners whose death is imminent anyway.

If you allow physicians to assist the death of some prisoners, where do you draw the line on what amount of suffering merits acquiescence to any prisoner’s request? Just as no jurisdiction on the planet which has legalised assisted suicide or euthanasia for the terminally ill has been able to restrict its use to that group in society at large, what hope is there of so restricting its use (and abuse) inside prisons?