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Published on July 22nd, 2014 | by Chris Cooper-Davies
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Assisted Dying Bill 2014

Despite the fact Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill has little chance of becoming law during this parliament, when it was debated in the House of Lords last Friday, over 130 peers clamoured to speak. Such a spectacle- unprecedented for a private members bill- serves to illustrate the diversity of opinion surrounding this highly controversial piece of draft legislation. And, as John Bingham from The Telegraph pointed out on Friday evening, it is not the pontificating of conflicting think tanks which fuels the controversy, but the personal experiences of individual dealing with the terminal ill and, indeed, terminal illness.

The bill itself only provides for an adjustment to the law. It does not advocate euthanasia, or wide ranging legislation allowing anyone interested to opt in. Instead, it permits assisted suicide for the terminally ill and mentally stable and describes a person as terminally ill if they are suffering with an inevitably progressive, untreatable medical condition and, as a consequence of this, are reasonably expected to die within six months. Only patients who meet these criteria would be allowed to participate. The disabled do not qualify or those with treatable conditions. It is of note, however, that a treatable condition is not one for which only symptom reducing treatments exists; the bill defines treatment as something which can reverse the illness entirely.

As well as this, the draft legislation includes numerous safe guards to prevent abuse. It stipulates that before assisted dying can take place two medical professional must certify that  a patient is suffering from a terminal illness and is of sound mind, and also that the patient themselves must administer the fatal dose.

Battling in the Lords on Friday, Peers fielded numerous arguments in support of the bill. It is compassionate, several pointed out, for the state to allow a person to end their lives prematurely with dignity if they desire. As the former Arch Bishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who has recently reconciled assisted dying with Christianity, stated, ‘When suffering is so great, when some patients already know that they are at the end of life, (and) make repeated pleas to die, it seems a denial of loving compassion…to refuse to allow them to fulfil their clearly stated request.’

But denying someone assistance in dying, others continued, is not only uncompassionate. It’s also an infringement on their liberty. As Baroness Greengross argued, adults do have the right to terminate their lives in this country; suicide is not illegal. Denying an incapacitated terminally ill individual a right they would have otherwise had, therefore, is obviously wrong. And such a point is corroborated by the fact that several terminally ill individuals, such as Yvonne Tustin, have said that simply having the option of assisted suicide available- and therefore knowing that they could, if circumstances dictated, end their suffering- would provide some comfort.

The most poignant of all the cases in support, however, was undeniably that laid out by Lord Falconer in his opening statement. Terminal ill people, he argued, take their own lives and will continue to do so whether or not the law is changed. The problem is that at the moment many are scared to ask family or friends for assistance for fear of implicating them in a criminal enterprise. They therefore ‘horde pills or put a plastic bag over their head’ and end their lives alone, distressed, without the support of the family or friends they cared about dearly and were trying to protect.

Combined, these three cases- the compassionate, the liberal, and the pragmatic- make for a highly compelling argument. Nevertheless, opposition to the bill is strong. Some, such as Lord Tebbit, contend that a change to the law in this way will put pressure on people to end their lives prematurely and also create ‘too much of a financial incentive for the taking of life’.

Others argued that our focus should instead be on palliative care and ensuring the terminal ill live out their last days in comfort, as opposed to allowing them to bow out early.

And others, fielding perhaps the most commonly voiced and widely feared argument for the opposition, cited the inevitability of a ‘slippery slope’. Assisted dying for the terminally ill, they contended, might very well morph into assisted dying for the disabled and then perhaps even for the physically well, years down the line. The supposed safe guards, they continued, are not only ‘not safe’, but completely ‘defective’. They will undoubtedly be swept aside as they are beginning to be in Switzerland, The Netherlands and Belgium.

With so many opposing cases, the debate produced something of a political deadlock in the Lords. And although the bill will now move to committee stage for line by line analysis and critique, its chances of success in this parliament are unlikely because David Cameron- while welcoming the debate- is not in favour.

In the opinion of this humble onlooker, however, adjustment of the law in this country will not be long in coming. For although the arguments against have their merits, they fail to dent the compelling triad of contentions in support of the bill. Lord Tebbit’s remarks, for instance, are unduly pessimistic while those who urge focus on palliative care are unduly idealistic; some people reach a point where no amount of care can alleviate their suffering.

Furthermore, the ‘slippery slope’ case is unconvincing because, as Lord Falconer pointed out during the debate, there is no elusive legislative  ‘slippery slope’ waiting to mutilate new legislation until it resembles it’s most extreme and unethical form. There is simply the UK legislature, and if the UK legislature does not want to follow a particular path, that path will not be followed. And using the examples of other European countries as evidence of a slippery slopes existence is also unsatisfactory because the legislatures in those countries- believe it or not- have different values and priorities to our own.

On top of this, there is also evidence to suggest the public are supportive of a change in the law. A YouGov poll in 2012 found that 69% of Britons thought assisted dying for the terminally ill should be introduced and only 17% opposed it. Not only is an adjustment in the law supported by three highly persuasive arguments, therefore, it would also be a fantastic exercise in democracy.

It is perhaps poignant here to look back at 1967 when a similar piece of socially progressive legislation was working its way through parliament, it too introduced as a private members bill. The 1967 Abortion Act has undoubtedly helped millions in this country lead full, prosperous and happy lives. Like the assisted dying bill there were compelling compassionate, liberal and pragmatic cases for supporting it. Unlike the 1967 Abortion Act, the government isn’t quite ready for this one- which is a shame, because the nation is.


Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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MA history student at SOAS

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