Yet another 'assisted dying' bill is before the Westminster Parliament. This time, a two-pronged approach has been adopted by the campaigners. We have Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords and, as of this week, a parallel bill by an MP, Rob Marris, in the House of Commons.
Many people have serious reservations about changing the law. The majority of doctors do not believe that assisting the suicides of patients is a proper part of clinical practice. Among those who specialise in treatment and care of the dying opposition is near unanimous.
People with disabilities are worried that, if 'assisted dying' is legalised for terminally ill people, they could be next on the list. And there are others who look with concern on what is happening in the handful of jurisdictions overseas that have chosen to go down the 'assisted dying' road.
The evidence from other jurisdictions is variable but it is certainly not reassuring. In The Netherlands the numbers are rising sharply year by year. In 2013 one in every thirty deaths was the result euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Oregon, which is held up as the model for legislation in Britain, saw a rise of over 43% in assisted suicides in 2014. In neighbouring Washington State nearly two out of three of those who were supplied with lethal drugs in 2013 gave, as one of their reasons for requesting them, that they wanted to avoid being a burden on others.
The campaigners tell us not to worry. The pressure group Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, says that in Oregon "there have been no cases of abuse and no calls to extend the law beyond terminally ill adults". In reality, there are no arrangements in place to scrutinise how requests for assisted suicide are being handled - whether the doctors who agree to consider them are conducting serious enquiries or just ticking the boxes. What we do know, from research carried out in Oregon, is that some people who have ended their lives with legally-supplied lethal drugs had been suffering from undiagnosed clinical depression.
The claim that there have been no calls to extend Oregon's law no longer holds good. Representative Mitch Greenlick has introduced a bill that would increase the time frame for terminal illness from six months to twelve months of life expectancy. It may not succeed this time round - because, interestingly, supporters of legalised assisted suicide are concerned that it might frighten other States from following Oregon's example of legalising assisted suicide. But extension is now on the table.
Legalised 'assisted dying' contains a structural weakness - it rests of arbitrary criteria which are open to challenge. If relief of suffering is the touchstone, why should assistance with suicide be restricted to people who are expected to die shortly of natural causes and withheld from others who may have years of distress ahead of them? Or, again, if promotion of personal autonomy is the aim, how does legalising physician-assisted suicide, but not physician-administered euthanasia, help people who are physically unable to self-administer lethal drugs?
Laws are like nation states. Their boundaries are more secure when they rest on natural frontiers. The law that we have rests on just such a frontier: it rests on the principle that we do not involve ourselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of other people. Once exceptions are made to that principle on arbitrary grounds like terminal illness, the frontier becomes just a line in the sand, easily crossed and hard to defend against encroachment.
Lord Falconer himself seems to recognise this. The report of his self-styled 'commission on assisted dying' concluded that assisted suicide should not be offered to seriously disabled people who are not terminally ill "at this point in time". Those five words are chilling. As paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson has written, "this means I may not be a candidate for assisted suicide right now but I am in the waiting room".
I do not doubt the motives of those who are pressing for legislation of this nature but I believe they are profoundly mistaken in believing that such practices can be controlled and vulnerable people protected from harm. We should wake up before it is too late.
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