Navigating Impasses in Bioethics: End of Life, Disability, and Mental Illness

This interdisciplinary workshop will discuss current legislation on medically assisted suicide for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, with a special focus on mental health.

Date & Time:

Friday, December 8, 2017
7:30 AM - 5:30 PM



St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, England

Sponsored by:

The Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry (VHI), St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, and the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.


Program Draft

List of Contributors

The contentious issues surrounding the debate on consent and physician-assisted suicide reach difficult impasses when applied to people suffering with mental illness and disabilities. Should euthanasia be granted on the grounds of mental health suffering? What are the challenges and risks of this practice for policy making? How are the views of disability rights movements affecting assisted suicide laws? How is the general perception of disabled lives (in terms of value, dignity, agency) affecting this debate and what consequences does it have for our society?

Euthanasia, under the euphemistic name of Medical Assisted Dying has recently been legalized in Canada. The Canadian government has relied heavily on the experiences of  Belgium and the Netherlands, and certain US federal states, which have already legalized euthanasia. In 2015, in an historic vote, UK’s MPs rejected the Assisting Dying Bill. Currently a Bill which would enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own lives is being debated by the House of Lords. At the same time recent reports show an increase in the number of people who experience mental illness during their lifetime, often with long-term effect or in the presence of a concomitant disability, resulting in a shorter life expectancy and an increased number of suicides. Case reports from Belgium and the Netherlands show that the Euthanasia Committee is occasionally approving requests related to ‘unbearable suffering’ connected to mental illness, dementia, or autism spectrum condition. These examples raise challenging questions on the impact of such decisions for vulnerable persons and on the assessment of decision making capabilities in the presence of learning disability and mental illnesses.

There is a knowledge gap when it comes to the question of euthanasia and physicianassisted suicide in the context of mental health. Although a large quantity of literature has been produced on both euthanasia and mental health, the ethical problems and challenges that arise in the context of policies regulating euthanasia for mentally ill patients have not yet been adequately addressed. This workshop aims to provide a unique setting to bring together divergent, often conflicting, perspectives (legal, medical, ethical, philosophical, and theological) to re-think and re-image some of the key concepts involved in this discussion, such as quality of life, dying with dignity, autonomy/dependency, mental capacity, unbearable suffering, cultural and social attitudes toward disability. Papers will highlight issues, challenge specific aspects, and / or offer insights for further research work.

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