On 7 July the House of Lords rejected by 194 to 141 a change in the law on assisted suicide. (1) Lord Falconer's amendment 173 to the Coroners and Justice Bill would have exempted from investigation and prosecution those who help terminally ill people to travel abroad to seek assisted suicide where legal - in effect, Switzerland.
The amendment was the culmination of a carefully orchestrated campaign by Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), built around perceived public sympathy for high profile cases of people taking relatives to end their lives at Ludwig Minelli's 'Dignitas' facility in Zurich. Ironically the clause they were attempting to amend had been designed for another purpose altogether, to prevent internet promotion of suicide. (3)
The amendment's resounding defeat by 53 votes (larger than the 48 in May 2006 for Lord Joffe's 'Assisted Dying' bill), followed strong opposition from senior legal figures (4), senior doctors (5), disabled people's leaders (6) and faith leaders (7) and a robust debate in the Lords itself where the serious objections were eloquently laid out. Once again in this matter, by God's grace, sanity prevailed.
Six days earlier the British Medical Association, at its annual representative meeting, had rejected a two part motion (370) on assisted suicide. The first part, calling for the BMA to support legislation to 'ensure that those accompanying the patient at an assisted death, but not actively participating, will not be subject to criminal prosecution' was defeated by 52.6% to 44.4%. The second part, supporting a legal change to 'allow the choice of an assisted death by patients who are terminally ill and who have mental capacity' was lost decisively on a show of hands. (8)
Baroness Ilora Finlay, Professor of Palliative Medicine in Cardiff, and Essex junior doctor Helen Grote spoke strongly against the motion, emphasising issues of public safety. BMA Council Chair Hamish Meldrum and Ethics Chair Tony Calland, although emphasising this was a conscience vote, drew attention to the imminent Lord's debate and the profession's historical opposition to assisted suicide.
In the same week, senior lawyers, among them former Chancellor Lord Mackay, had labelled Falconer's amendment 'ill-defined, unsound and unnecessary'. In a comprehensive clinical briefing, senior doctors led by Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians, had criticised its vague wording and branded it 'wide open to manipulation and abuse'. Over 30 leaders of the disabled people's movement in the UK and USA, led by disabled peer Baroness Campbell, had warned it would 'undoubtedly place disabled people under pressure to end their lives early to relieve the burden on relatives, carers or the state'. 'We are scared now', they said; 'we will be terrified if assisted suicide becomes state-sanctioned'.
A cursory examination of Falconer's amendment confirms why there was so much concern. 'Terminally ill' was not defined and could have applied to people with a wide range of chronic progressive illnesses, some with life expectancy stretching to decades. The 'assessing doctors' were not required to know, to see, nor to examine the person in question nor even to review the case notes; nor was it necessary they possess the requisite training, experience and skill necessary to make sound judgments about prognosis and capacity.
Ethics aside, on pragmatic grounds alone a majority of Peers could see that especially at a time of economic recession with imminent health cuts, with growing numbers of elderly people, and with increasing levels of elder abuse, the last thing needed was to put elderly, sick or disabled people under pressure to end their lives through a change in the law. Many of them already believe they are a financial or emotional burden.
The current law's blanket prohibition of all assisted suicide is both clear and right and has stood the test of time. The penalties it holds in reserve give it both a stern face to deter would-be abusers and a kind heart to enable judges to exercise compassion in hard cases. The Falconer amendment would have created legal confusion by loosening a law the government intends to tighten, to stop internet suicides. What is not broken does not need fixing.
The next day newspapers reported a case where it was alleged a woman had tried to murder her husband with motor neurone disease, after learning insurers would pay a six figure sum if he died. It was a chilling reminder that not all family members necessarily have the best interests of their 'loved ones' at heart, and why the law must stay as it is.
Peter Saunders is CMF General Secretary.