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Illiberal and Illegitimate? A response to the Marris Bill

8th September 2015

On September 11 MPs will have the opportunity to settle for this Parliament the question of whether the terminally ill should have assistance with suicide, provided certain conditions are met.

Far from a widespread popular movement, the history of assisted suicide campaigns in the UK is one of almost total failure, extending back over eighty years since the first Bill (the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Bill) was rejected by Peers in 1936.

Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) have not made any serious attempt for 18 years to change the law in the elected House of Commons. When measures have come before other elected bodies – as they have recently in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly  – they have been resoundingly defeated.

Despite the best efforts of assisted suicide campaigners, none of the major political parties (except the Greens) promised in their 2015 manifestos either legislation or Government time for debate. A remarkable failure given that the Liberal Democrats adopted the policy at their 2012 party conference and that Lord Falconer, a close adviser to the last Labour leader, is its chief parliamentary advocate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly after this decades-long legacy of failure, campaigners have cited last year’s parliamentary debate on Lord Falconer’s Bill as evidence of momentum. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A key factor for the Lords in deciding to allow the Bill to proceed to committee was the June 2014 statement by the President of the Supreme Court in its Judgment in the Nicklinson, Lamb and Martin cases, in which Parliament was urged to make space to address the issue of the Suicide Act. In the debate one of the leading opponents of the Falconer Bill, Baroness Finlay, said “like many others, particularly doctors who will be expected to be involved in assisting their patients’ suicide, I do not support this Bill. But the Supreme Court has asked Parliament to look at the issue and we should not oppose it at Second Reading.”   In that debate opinion was evenly divided amongst Peers and no vote was taken on the principle of the Bill itself.

The failure of the campaign to pass assisted suicide legislation is not only the case in the UK.  Dr Jacqueline Harvey of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International has observed that in the United States “assisted suicide is an established loser with lawmakers, failing more than 99% of the time in statehouses in over 20 years.”

But what of the polls? In the frequently cited March 2015 YouGov poll (self-commissioned by Dignity in Dying), the question used language deliberately hardened to describe the existing situation (‘illegal’, ‘suffering’, ‘unbearable’) against softer terms to describe the Bill (‘allow the option’, ‘voluntary, clear and settled decision’). ‘Safeguards’ are mentioned though not explained. For the majority of those opposed to the Assisted Dying Bill it is the clear lack of any detailed safeguards on the face of the legislation that is the primary concern.

That the Assisted Dying Bill is not supported by any of the established representative groups for doctors or palliative care professionals, disability groups or churches, is a firm testament to its lack of broad based support, especially amongst those who have most direct experience of end of life issues.

Many fear that a law resting on arguments about rights, autonomy and compassion will create an inevitable direction of travel towards assisted suicide for those outside the category of terminal illness. It is notable that several advocates for changing the law, including Lord Carey, have cited as compelling the cases of people who wish to end their lives but are not terminally ill. A recent Economist editorial (endorsed by Dignity in Dying), advocated assisted suicide for children with terminal illnesses, the non-terminally ill and the depressed.

On fundamental questions of life and death it should take more than a single issue pressure group, with some self-commissioned opinion polls, a well-oiled PR machine and a clutch of celebrity endorsements, to change the law. On 11th September MPs have the chance to raise the level of debate beyond pressure group politics and give the Supreme Court the steer it has requested. If the Assisted Dying Bill goes the way of its predecessors of the past eight decades then Dignity in Dying ought to have the good grace to concede defeat.


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