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Physicist Stephen Hawking Backs Assisted Suicide

Physicist Stephen Hawking Backs Assisted Suicide

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.

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Image credit: NASA HQ

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130 comments

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3:30PM PDT on Oct 31, 2013

I agree. There should be a choice in place for those who are suffering to end their suffering humanely.

5:00AM PDT on Oct 5, 2013

We have this approved law in Belgium, which is very strict in its performance. The patient does indeed have to give permission and has to be backed by at least 2 medical doctors.It takes some time though, as the investigations are very thorough. But al least one can leave his mental/physical sufferings behind in a dignified way, for which I am 100% pro. Our own live belongs to us, nobody has the right to say what you can or cannot do. And for those saying God is against it, all I can say is , did he say that to you in person? I don't think so, it's taken out of a book written by mere men. Besides, life is more than our physical body, which is just the tempel in which "we" reside.

8:00AM PDT on Oct 3, 2013

I have to go along with this......

9:56AM PDT on Oct 1, 2013

people need to be able to make this choice when they've had enough

8:19AM PDT on Sep 29, 2013

Anyone who's interested can check out the website of Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society). They're an organization which lobbies for physician-aid-in-dying legislation and which provides a great deal of useful information for those seeking rational suicide and good palliative care.

http://www.compassionandchoices.org/

Also, there's a very useful book - Final Exit - which is a "how-to" manual on how to end your own life if you're in an unacceptable medical situation (and it contains drug dosage charts as well as other information). It can be bought at Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Final-Exit-Practicalities-Self-Deliverance-Assisted/dp/0385336535?tag=ap0a7eddd0-20

8:15AM PDT on Sep 29, 2013

When assisted rational suicide isn't legal - that's when abuses occur. Because people must take action "under the table" and there are no "under the table" safeguards. And in those states which have limited aid-in-dying (where physicians can prescribe lethal doses of drugs which the patients must take themselves) there haven't been any reported abuses, nor have there been masses of patients choosing that option. It's there for those who want it and those who don't will end their lives naturally.

Professor Hawking is, despite what another commenter said, a good spokesperson for this - he has suffered most of his life from a devastating debilitating condition and knows what constant physical disability can do to a person. For him, his life has meaning even with his disability and he's chosen to go on living - as is his absolute right. It's not a choice I would make, however, and I want the legal option to have a physician assist me with a humane and painless death should the need arise.

We grant women the right to control over their own bodies when it comes to abortion - surely we should also grant all people the right to control over their own bodies in terms of deciding how and when to end the body's suffering.

11:34AM PDT on Sep 27, 2013

Good words from one who knows.

10:28AM PDT on Sep 27, 2013

controversial, but really we force humans to suffer but give terminally ill animals a way out or their suffering? I am with Mr Hawkings

4:29AM PDT on Sep 27, 2013

Thank you for the article.

8:25AM PDT on Sep 26, 2013

Why do we treat our terminally ill PETS with far more humanity and dignity than we treat our human loved ones when THEY'RE suffering from a terminal illness? It's QUALITY of life that matters, not quantity, and if someone is dying and doesn't wish to suffer from a slow and undignified end, then they should be able to "pull the plug" on their own terms and when they feel the time is right. Nobody should be forced to be bedridden, dependent on others for everything from having a meal to wiping their ass, and enduring pain and suffering at the end of their lives!

My maternal grandmother suffered a heart attack, two major strokes, and a series of minor strokes before finally succumbing to pneumonia after six years of declining physical and mental health following the heart attack (the strokes came later). Visiting her became onerous because half the time she would be babbling nonsense due to the strokes, and when she was lucid it was even worse because she would literally be begging us to kill her because she had had enough! Combine that with my years of fire/rescue and running plenty of "medic assist" calls involving the elderly who were basically bedridden and suffering from Alzheimer's, dementia, strokes, emphysema, and numerous other conditions that made their lives miserable, and you can understand why I'm all for assisted suicide!

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