In recent months and as part of a concerted campaign, assisted dying has constantly been in the media spotlight through the Debbie Purdy case (seeking immunity for her husband from prosecution should he accompany her to commit suicide abroad), Craig Ewart's SKY Real Lives documentary (covering his death at the Dignitas suicide facility in Zurich), the BBC drama on the January 2006 suicide of Bath GP Anne Turner, and the double suicide of Peter and Penny Duff. (1) While British deaths at Dignitas remain small (100 in five years or 1 in 30,000 British deaths) these high profile 'hard cases', it is claimed, call for a change in the law.
Since the defeat of Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in May 2006 the pro-euthanasia lobby have been regrouping for another assault on Westminster. It is now clear that this will come via the Coroners and Justice Bill. (2) (3) The Bill was introduced into the House of Commons on 14 January 2009, was debated at Second Reading on 26 January, has been since scrutinised by a committee of MPs, and will have its Report Stage and Third Reading in late March, thereafter passing to the House of Lords.
This complex government Bill actually contains nothing about assisted dying, but rather has provisions to tighten up the Suicide Act 1961 in the wake of the Bridgend suicides. (4) We expect though that from Commons Report stage on there will be repeated attempts to hijack it to legalise assisted suicide.
This has been made explicit by former Health Minister Lord Warner, (5 )by Dignity in Dying CEO Sarah Wootton in a letter to The Times, (6) by David Winnick MP in an Early Day Motion (EDM 230) signed by over 100 MPs, by Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth in speeches to Parliament, and through Dignity in Dying running a grassroots campaign.
To legalise assisted dying, especially at a time of economic crisis, would inevitably place pressure on vulnerable people to choose to end their lives for fear of being a financial or emotional burden upon others.
The Prime Minister twice in December 2008 expressed his opposition to any change in the law to allow assisted dying, (7 ) and there appears to be no government intention to do so. However, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the voices of Christian doctors in writing and speaking to MPs, educating churches and colleagues, and commenting in the media will be essential in safeguarding the law and in promoting better care for those who are terminally or chronically ill.