A ComRes poll published today by social policy charity CARE demonstrates that nearly half the population is concerned that if the option of ending one’s life was made legal, some people would feel pressured into killing themselves. 45% of people expressed this concern, a figure that rose to 50% in the South East, Midlands and Scotland.
Tellingly, the poll also reveals that 47% of people believe that making provision for assisted suicide in the UK would not help our society value disabled people more. Indeed for 18 – 24 year olds, and those in managerial and professional jobs, the figure rises to 57% and 55% respectively.1
Commenting on both the poll and the Falconer Report, CARE’s CEO, Nola Leach, said, ‘At the beginning of this New Year we should be thinking about the steps we can take that will challenge our society to value the vulnerable and people with disabilities more. The last thing we should be contemplating – especially at a time of economic hardship – is changing our laws so that those with a terminal illness, who believe they are a burden, are more likely to feel pressured into ending their lives. This, however, despite all the talk about safeguards, is the real danger presented by the Falconer Report also published today.’
‘When one allows for the unintended consequences – which international experience makes plain cannot be satisfactorily addressed through safeguards – the truth is that whilst the current law may not be perfect, it is the best show in town.
As the eminent lawyer, Lord Carlile QC, puts it we have “a hard law, with a kind face.”
On the one hand, as a “hard law” the current legislation makes it plain that helping someone to commit suicide is not acceptable and it thereby crucially protects vulnerable people, who believe they are a burden, from feeling they must avail themselves of a state-sanctioned means of hastening their demise.
On the other hand, its “kind face” means prosecutors have flexibility about whether or not to bring charges.
Some might argue that the failure of the Director of Public Prosecutions to bring charges in the 31 assisted suicides cases brought before him since his guidance on the subject was published demonstrates that our current arrangements are not working. However, when one appreciates that a change in the law along the lines suggested by Falconer is likely to result in approximately 885 assisted suicides of vulnerable people in the UK (the figure would rise to some 13,000 if we allowed for assisted suicide and euthanasia as in Holland), the merits of our current arrangements become abundantly clear.’2
‘These points should have come through clearly but sadly the whole Falconer ‘Commission’ process has been flawed from the start.’
‘First, the findings are the result of a so-called Commission that is completely unbalanced.’
In light of the above concerns, the credibility of the Falconer ‘Commission’ process has been widely called into question, including through a very critical 5 point British Medical Association resolution. 4 Many bodies, including CARE, refused to give evidence to the ‘Commission’ because of its flawed composition.’
‘Second, the formation of the ‘Commission’ somewhat smacks of desperation. The only reason for establishing it is that the two genuinely independent parliamentary Committees that have exhaustively considered the evidence both recommended no change in the law. For instance, the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Committee covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively. 5 Moreover, all parliamentary attempts to change the law in the way that Falconer desires have failed (by 148-100, May 2006, and 194-141, July 2009). The last attempt at legalisation in Scotland also resulted in a heavy defeat (85-16) for Margo Macdonald MSP’s Bill in November 2010.’
‘Quite apart from anything else, the very public and very blatant flaws in the Falconer ‘Commission’ process should make parliament extremely cautious about embracing any aspects of its findings. When one looks at the specifics of the proposals in light of the inevitable unintended consequences for the vulnerable, though, it is clear that this is a report that should never be acted on. Let us start 2012 by considering what legislative changes can be made that challenge our society to value the vulnerable and disabled more not less, that make our society more humane not more dangerous for those on the margins.’
1. The poll was conducted by ComRes which interviewed 1004 GB adults by telephone between 16th and 18th December 2011. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Other findings show that as many as nearly 4 in 10 people were prepared to state that legalising assisted suicide would actually be ‘foolish’ in light of the Harold Shipman case, a figure that rose to nearly 1 in 2 for those over 65.
2. These figures are based on projecting up Oregon and Netherlands figures to the UK. Oregon has a small population of just under 4 million compared to over 60 million in the UK; but its land area is slightly bigger than the of the UK. Approximately 30,000 individuals die in Oregon every year compared to half a million in the UK. In 2009, 53 Oregonians died using PAS (Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act Report, 2009). It is estimated that around 88 terminally ill people committed suicide in England in 2009 (Demos, The Truth About Suicide, 2011, estimates approximately 2% of suicides were due to terminal illnesses). If the same rate of PAS deaths occurred in England as in Oregon, around 885 people would have died by physician assisted suicide (there were 491,348 deaths registered in England and Wales in 2009 (Births and Deaths in England and Wales, 2009, page 3 – 459,241 took place in England, Table 3). At a death rate of 0.19% for PAS deaths, 886 would have died.
Of crucial importance, however, the Falconer Report proposes giving greater flexibility to end one’s life. In Oregon this can only take place if a patient is projected to have just 6 months or less to live. The Falconer proposal is that people who are projected to have 12 months or less to live can access assisted suicide.
3. Lord Falconer was the last person to seek to liberalise the law on assisted suicide on July 7th 2009. The text of his amendment and the debate can be found at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldhansrd/text/90707-0006.htm#09070764000145
Lord Falconer pressed his amendment to a vote and lost by 53 votes, 194-141.
4. Motion 305, Medical Ethics session, British Medical Association Annual General Meeting Agenda, p.45, June 2011 (http://www.bma.org.uk/images/arm2011agenda_tcm41-206954.pdf)
305 Motion by THE AGENDA COMMITTEE (Motion to be proposed by the YORKSHIRE REGIONAL COUNCIL): That this Meeting:-
i) notes that the significant majority of members of Lord Falconer’s Commission on Assisted Dying are publically in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia;
ii) supports the BMA’s stance in not giving evidence to the DEMOS Commission on Assisted Dying;
iii) questions the stated impartiality and independence of the Commission on Assisted Dying;
iv) requests the BMA Ethics Committee to make the Association’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia clear to the Commission on Assisted Dying;
v) requests the BMJ editorial team to present a balanced and unbiased coverage of the Commission on Assisted Dying.
5. The Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Committee Reports can be accessed here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldasdy.htm