If assisted suicide is legal, it seems obvious that there should be equality of access. Even for prisoners? This is the question that Swiss bioethicist Yoann Della Croce tackles in the journal Bioethics.
Assisted suicide rights for felons are not a burning human rights issue, but there have been prisoners who have invoked them – and no doubt demand will grow. A Belgian serial rapist and murderer, Frank Van Den Bleeken, requested euthanasia in 2015. In the end, his request was denied and he was moved to a specialist psychiatric facility. In 2018 a Swiss prisoner with incurable lung cancer and mental health issues requested the services of an assisted suicide organisation.
However, authorities in the various jurisdictions with assisted suicide and euthanasia are reluctant to permit this. Why? First of all, prison is a place where it is difficult to guarantee that people are truly making autonomous choices. Second, it seems as though “assisted dying” is too much like capital punishment – and this is banned in most of these jurisdictions. And third, choosing death seems like cheating society of its power to punish with lengthy incarcerations.
Della Croce believes that these arguments do not hold water. His argument is too detailed to summarise, but these are some of his main points.
First, we have to distinguish between prisoners who are terminally ill and seeking to escape pain and prisoners who are suffering from “prison tedium”. If both are permitted for the free population, why not for prisoners? Della Croce contends that it is dehumanising to refuse a request for assisted suicide. He argues if a bored prisoner claims to be suffering unbearably, he should be treated like everyone else in the jurisdiction:
“[Not to do so] is going down a dangerous slippery slope that ultimately leads to the dehumanization of inmates and failure to consider them as equal citizens, which, notwithstanding the content of some populist rhetoric, they remain …
“Prisoners are due equal respect in respect to their suffering and failing to acknowledge the seriousness of their pain on the ground that they have committed criminal acts is tantamount to treating them as second-class citizens to whom we owe less respect and concern than the law-abiding citizen.”