Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has spoken out in favor of assisted dying, saying that a terminally ill patient should have the right to be helped to die.
In an interview with the BBC, Hawking is quoted as saying that he backs assisted dying for those who are terminally ill and are capable of giving their informed consent, while at the same time supporting strong safeguards:
“I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives and those who help them should be free from prosecution.
But there must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and they are not being pressurized into it or have it done without their knowledge or consent, as would have been the case with me.”
The eminent scientist suffers from ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a form of motor neuron disease that is terminal. It is thought that approximately 5,600 people are diagnosed with ALS in the United States each year.
When Hawking was diagnosed at age 21, he was told he only had two to three years to live. At 71 Hawking is, by most standards, doing well, but ALS has taken a toll.
Hawking has been on life support for a number of decades now, requires the use of a specially modified wheel chair, uses a now famous electronic speech system to communicate and requires the assistance of nursing staff for life’s day to day details like dressing, eating and bathing.
Despite this, or as Hawking has sometimes commented — perhaps in part because of the way ALS has confined him so that he has been forced to explore the world through the power of his mind — the Cambridge educated physicist has been able to apply his own special brand of genius to unlocking some of the greatest mysteries our universe has to offer.
In the course of his career, Hawking has explored many topics such as the nature of black holes, the arrow of time and the 11 dimensions posited by M-Theory. Hawking has also authored a number of popular science books including his breakout and multi-million bestseller, “A Brief History of Time.”
Hawking’s words on assisted dying may surprise those familiar with his history.
Although never a staunch campaigner against assisted dying, he became the poster child for opponents of assisted suicide when in 2006 he divulged that during the course of his first marriage, he had suffered a period of intensely ill health and had to be put on a ventilator. His then-wife had the opportunity to remove him from life support.
While referring to this episode, he commented that he thought it would be “a great mistake” to end a life prematurely because, in his view, “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”
As perhaps one of the world’s most famous people who has a disability, anti-assisted dying groups seized upon this. They did of course forget to add the more measured caveat Hawking made along with those those comments: that those who wished to end their lives should at least be able to do so.
How far Hawking’s most recent comments should be classed as a change of opinion seems to depend on the affiliation of the news sites reporting on the news, with religious conservative websites now saying this is a complete about-face, probably spurred on by the Guardian’s rather poor grasp of the comments, and those more open to at least discourse around assisted dying calling it a more clear reiteration of his stance.
Hawking, for his part, has been very clear that he is not advocating for euthanasia and, again, has stressed that it must be the clearly expressed will of the terminally ill patient.
This comes at a time when a number of states in the United States have confronted the topic of assisted dying, and when the UK – spurred on by a number of legal cases — prepares to take up an assisted dying bill in the House of Lords next year. It is currently a criminal offense to help someone take their own life, though the courts have been reticent to apply the law in cases where it is clear that informed consent was given by the terminally ill. The Lords bill, despite having strong safeguards to ensure patient autonomy, has been vehemently opposed by so-called “right to life” groups.
While such groups were once quick to embrace Hawking’s celebrity when they thought his opinion agreed with them, they are now warning that his words shouldn’t be allowed to drown out those “millions” among the disabled who feel assisted dying could be a slippery slope. This despite little evidence that legalized assisted dying does in fact lead to widespread abuse of the elderly or those with disabilities.