Last night the attempt by Patricia Hewitt and Evan Harris to liberalise the law on assisting suicide was deliberately talked out in the House of Commons. While those of us who uphold the sanctity of human life must be relieved that their amendment did not get anywhere, it was a pity that we did not have opportunity to make our arguments against it. Because they are overwhelming.
I have often expressed the concern, shared by many, that we must uphold the value of human life and defend it from practices which would cheapen and undermine.
I am sure we all agree about the need to show compassion to those who develop suicidal intentions. Any suicide is a tragedy of destruction; tacit proof of society’s failure to respond to the circumstances that prompted an individual to take their own life. UK law as it stands quite rightly prohibits anyone from aiding or encouraging someone else to commit suicide, and the Coroners and Justice Bill rightly seeks to update that legal position by adding provisions outlawing the encouragement of suicide via websites and other means.
The amendment proposed by Patricia Hewitt and Evan Harris directly contradicts the spirit and intention of these new provisions by specifically legalising one kind of assistance to commit suicide. With the addition of their New Clause, a law expressly intended to discourage suicide would also contain a provision allowing precisely the opposite – encouragement and assistance to commit suicide abroad. The appearance of such a self-contradictory law on the statute book would be absurd.
But the proposals raise greater concerns than just the element of legal farce. They are truly dangerous.
The proposals bear, of course, some connection with recent high-profile cases of UK citizens travelling or seeking to travel to end their lives in countries where assisted suicide is legal. Without wishing to consider any of them in particular detail, such cases consistently involve determined and resolute individuals who suffer from terminal illnesses or an incapacity which they believed rendered their life no longer worth living (though I should point out that medical experts have suggested that some of these individuals may in fact have been suffering from depressive illnesses and might not have been so determined to end their lives had they accessed appropriate psychiatric help).
The point is this: those who advocate assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia and associated practices always assure us that they desire only to legalise the most clear-cut cases involving the most competent and independently-minded people (of course, I would disagree that any case of suicide can be “clear-cut”, regardless of how competent the individual might appear to be). We are constantly assured that assisting suicide can be legalised within stringent safeguards which prevent any possible abuse or exploitation of people who are not competent or who are subject to coercion.
Any examination of the detail of the Hewitt/Harris proposals blows such arguments out of the water. Where are the safeguards?
Their New Clause does not require that the person travelling abroad be mentally competent. It does not require that they suffer terminal illness, or any illness at all. It does not require any sort of proof that they actually intend to take their own lives. It does not even require them to be over 18, so that children could be taken abroad to commit suicide. So much for safeguards – and yet consider the kind of people who would be exposed to this proposal. Ill people, elderly people, vulnerable people. It is not difficult to think of situations where such vulnerable people could be convinced to take advantage of such a law, either because they erroneously believe themselves to be burden, or because someone else has a vested interest in hastening their end.
Let no one suggest that this gaping lack of safeguards might be made good by the legislation in the countries to which these individuals might travel to end their lives. We hear much about the Dignitas clinic in Zurich and its apparently rigorous procedures. Dignitas is of course currently under investigation for profiteering from patients’ deaths, and has been the subject of very serious accusations of malpractice from a former staff member.
When Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act was first introduced, about one third of patients requesting the help of a doctor to commit suicide were referred for psychiatric assessment; there has not been one such referral in the last two years. As the medical profession has become calloused by its involvement in the process, patients are simply placed on the conveyor-belt from request to death.
The simple fact is that the legislation in places where assisted suicide is legal has been proven to lack sufficient safeguards and the Hewitt/Harris proposals would simply surrender vulnerable UK citizens to these inadequate regimes.
Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, the Liberal Democrat Peer, made a very sensible argument in a letter to The Times in November 2008. Referring to “paper thin” safeguards in an assisted dying Bill in another place, he wrote: “The real concern is, and remains, public safety”.
He went on: “Laws aren’t like precision-guided missiles. Once a statute, they can quickly be used to encourage acts they were designed to enable and control… This is not about religion or autonomy or medicine: it is about public safety, legal certainty and the protection by the law of the vulnerable. It behoves Parliament to think very carefully once again, rather than be stampeded by highly emotional campaigns mounted by single-issue pressure groups”.
Daily Mail, 25 January 2008  Jeffrey, D, Against Physician Assisted Suicide: A palliative care perspective, Radcliffe Publishing Limited, 2009, page 66; The Daily Telegraph, 21 February 2009  The Times, 5 November 2008