Joel Zivot

Last rights: assisted suicide is neither painless nor dignified


Is euthanasia painless? The founder of the British pro-euthanasia movement (and sometime eugenicist) Dr Killick Millard declared in 1931 that his aim was ‘to substitute for the slow and painful death a quick and painless one’. His sentiment is echoed today by the pro-euthanasia group My Death, My Decision, which says that it wants the ‘option of a peaceful, painless, and dignified death’. The British Medical Association appears to agree and this week dropped its opposition to the Assisted Dying Bill, currently making its way through parliament.

As a doctor and expert witness against the use of lethal injection for execution in America, however, I am quite certain that assisted suicide is not painless or peaceful or dignified. In fact, in the majority of cases, it is a very painful death.

The death penalty is not the same as assisted dying, of course. Executions are meant to be punishment; euthanasia is about relief from suffering. Yet for both euthanasia and executions, paralytic drugs are used. These drugs, given in high enough doses, mean that a patient cannot move a muscle, cannot express any outward or visible sign of pain. But that doesn’t mean that he or she is free from suffering.

‘Do you have confidence booster jabs?’

In 2014, I watched the lethal injection of Marcus Wellons in a Georgia prison. The 59-year-old had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his 15-year-old neighbour India Roberts in 1989. ‘I’m going home to be with Jesus’ were his final words as the drugs entered his body.

I noticed that Wellons’s fingers were taped to the stretcher, which made little sense, given his body had already been restrained by heavy straps. I kept asking myself why. I read into the subject and came across a report of the lethal injection execution of another death row inmate, Dennis McGuire, five months earlier.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles


Written by
Joel Zivot
Dr Joel Zivot is an associate professor of anaesthesiology and surgery at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.

Topics in this article


Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in