SIR – Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has asked for statistics on how many people with “terminal” conditions kill themselves (report, May 1). However, it is unclear how this will “inform a new debate on legalising doctor-assisted suicide in the UK”. Whatever the number, how do we know whether that condition was the reason they took their own life or, if it was, whether they did so while depressed and would not have killed themselves given support from mental health or palliative care services? Also, why has he not asked for statistics on how many people kill themselves who are “losing autonomy”, or are “less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable”, the two main reasons for physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, the state on which British campaigners model their bills? Then there are those who feel a “burden on family, friends or caregivers”, a reason for almost half. Inadequate pain control is way down the list. Indeed, the Oregon law does not require that the patient be suffering any pain at all. Statistics have their place, but they are no substitute for sound ethics. If you want the right answers it helps to ask the right questions. 

Professor John Keown Kennedy Institute of Ethics Georgetown University, Washington

Letter in the Telegraph can be found here: