Consider Evidence, Not Emotion or Off-The-Shelf Opinion, on 'Right to Die'

I don't bulk-buy my opinions. I don't rely solely on emotion, polls of the general public or even the views of "people like me", to determine my position on where the balance of the law should rest. I consider the evidence.

"I'm talking not about assisted dying, but about the right to die", wrote David Aaronovitch in The Times on Thursday. But assisted dying is just what he is talking about. There is no law to stop him dying, whether that means ending his own life or refusing medical treatment that would prolong it.

What Mr Aaoronivitch wants is not a right to die but a right to involve someone else in bringing about his death; in assisting his suicide. In legal and social terms, that is a very different thing.

We rightly do not prosecute people who attempt suicide - but we have national suicide prevention strategies. As a society we take the view, and reflect this in law, that suicide is not something to encourage or assist. Mr Aaronivitch wants us to legislate to do just that: to match the right he feels he does not yet have to die with a corresponding duty on someone else actively to be part of ending his life.

Mr Aaronovitch wants doctors to be licensed to supply lethal drugs to patients who ask for them and who, in two doctors' opinions, appear to meet certain conditions. Yet surveys of informed medical opinion show repeatedly that the majority of doctors want nothing to do with this. More than 80% of palliative care doctors, supporting dying people and those close to them every working day, oppose physician-assisted suicide, and only 4% would be prepared to assist someone's suicide.

This shouldn't be surprising. Underlying all good clinical practice is a duty of care. Doctors see us at our most vulnerable. Most seriously-ill people are not the bullish, independent people on whose behalf Mr Aaronovitch speaks. They are often distressed, fearful about the future and the process of dying - or worried about being a burden on those that they love. Some of them may be subject to coercion by unscrupulous people. The current law protects them.

That's not to say that someone who helps another person to die will always feel the full force of the law. Prosecuting guidance allows discretion and for exceptional cases to be treated exceptionally - while maintaining the clear legal prohibition, the deterrent and the associated message that assisting suicide is wrong.

On Wednesday, the Scottish Parliament decisively rejected a bill to license assisted suicide in Scotland. Mr Aaronovitch says that this is not an issue of law but one of principle. But the law in this area, as in others, rests on a clear and widely-recognised principle - that we should not involve ourselves in bringing about the deaths of other people. This clear principle would be breached by an 'assisted dying' law.

Proponents of legal change say not to worry, as any such law would only apply to people who are terminally ill. But as the Royal College of General Practitioners has made clear, when predicting death beyond more than a week or two, "the scope for error can extend into years".

"The dam's about to burst on the right to die", wrote Aaronovitch. The metaphor is apt and the drowned potentially numerous. For how long would that distinctly flimsy "terminally ill" barrier remain in place? As Mr Aaronovitch points out, Jeffrey Spector, who flew to Switzerland last week to get assistance with suicide, would not have met the definition of terminal illness in the Assisted Dying Bill Lord Falconer introduced in the last Parliament - although the peer has referred to him this week as an example of who he would like his Bill to help.

I respect the motivations of Mr Aaronovitch and Lord Falconer, even though I don't agree with them. However, I find acutely insulting Mr Aaronovitch's comparison of those who oppose legalising assisted suicide with those who refused to recognise the concept of marital rape.

He positions legalising assisted suicide as part of an indivisible package of policy positions, assuming that if someone is pro-choice on abortion or same sex marriage they must support 'assisted dying' too.

I don't bulk-buy my opinions. I don't rely solely on emotion, polls of the general public or even the views of "people like me", to determine my position on where the balance of the law should rest. I consider the evidence.


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