Last Friday Lord Falconer of Thoroton unveiled his second bill for assisted dying. The bill titled Assisted Dying Bill 2019-20 is similar to the one he tried to get passed into law in 2014. That bill had progressed past its second reading with 133 speeches made during the debate. It however ran out of time in the approach to General Elections in 2015.
Like his first bill Lord Falconer’s new bill tries to give the impression that what he is proposing is reasonable and not extreme. For example it is not an assisted “suicide” bill. It is an assisted “dying” bill which caters for patients who are expected to die within six months. There are various “safeguards” including people being able to change their minds and doctors ensuring patients are competent enough to make a “voluntary, clear, settled and informed” wish to die. So what’s the problem then?
Whatever we call the legalisation of people being assisted to die, it is assisted suicide. Whatever the reasons, it is suicide because a patient takes his/her own life. What is different with the sort of suicide being advocated by Lord Falconer is that someone will be legally empowered to help you do it. He is asking for the law not to prosecute doctors and medical staff, who help their patients to die. To be clear we are not speaking about the many clinical decisions made every single day to switch off life support from dying patients. There is a difference between letting patients die, who are already dying and providing a lethal poison which kills them.
We can speak about the morality of doctors breaching the Hippocratic Oath to first do no harm. We can talk about doctors being here to heal people not to kill people. But I suspect this debate needs to go further to the practical implications of what happens if we do give them these powers.
The bill requires patients to have a voluntary clear settled and informed wish to die. Those of us who have experienced great pain and distress know the mental turmoil that goes with that. What this bill says is that we should trust patients to make a life and death decision when they are least likely to be in a “clear and settled” mental state.
We can speak of safeguards, two doctors, proper evaluations, restrictions etc. But we only need to look at what happened with the abortion laws here to see what happens over time. They began with two doctors having to see the patients and ensuring they qualified for abortion under mental health grounds. That went to not seeing them at all and even in some cases pre-signing the abortion forms without seeing or knowing anything about the patients. Then abortions were supposed to be offered up to 24 weeks only under certain circumstances. This week the Royal medical colleges are calling for abortions to be available until 24 weeks without restrictions….effectively abortion on demand. If Lord Falconer has his way, will we see assisted suicide on demand in this country for any reason one day? Legislation will always start with safeguards built in. We expect that. But with experience, we expect that those with an agenda will chip away at those safeguards until they get what they wanted in the first place. Many of the high profile cases for assisted suicide we have seen in the UK were for people who were not terminally ill. They would not have been covered by the law Lord Falconer proposes. But the euthanasia and assisted suicide lobbyists know that they have to begin somewhere. They have to look reasonable at the inception. And that is what this bill is about.
It is a first step to assisted suicide and euthanasia. If implemented it will place at risk the lives of the aged, the sick and the disabled. It is why organisations representing these groups opposed Lord Falconer’s Bill in 2014 and why they will oppose it again. As I write this the British Medical Association is consulting its 160 thousand members about assisted dying . We hope they will reject assisted dying as they did before.
As a country we have to show compassion for those who are the most vulnerable. In Oregon where assisted suicide is legal a significant number of patients identified being a burden to their family as a reason for wanting assisted suicide. A compassionate society ensures people do not feel they are a burden despite their challenges. It reaches out to people who are elderly, sick and terminally ill with good palliative support. With love and care, we should give people a reason to live rather than a reason to die. This is why we urge parliament to reject Lord Falconer’s bill and to pay even greater attention to the provision of quality palliative care and support for the sick and vulnerable.