Assisted dying – the debate continues

Somewhat to the horror, one imagines, of their colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, two newly-appointed ministers in the Department of Health have come out publicly in favour of a re-examination of the law and practice surrounding assisted suicide.

The BBC website reports that Anna Soubry, Conservative MP for Broxtowe, told The Times that it was “ridiculous and appalling” that one had to go abroad to end one’s life and that, though she rejected euthanasia, “you have the right to kill yourself”.  She was subsequently joined by her ministerial colleague Norman Lamb, Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk, who told the BBC:

“There is a case for looking at reform. This is an individual decision of conscience – there’s not a Government policy on it – but I certainly think that we should debate it: the positives and negatives about reform. But I certainly think, personally, that there is a case for looking at this.”

The Ministry of Justice told the BBC that there were no plans to change the law and a fairly senior Conservative back-bencher, Mark Pritchard, was reported as saying that there would be an “an almighty parliamentary row” if the subject were raised again in Parliament. At the same time, the widow of the late Tony Nicklinson expressed her intention of seeking leave to appeal against the rejection by the Administrative Court of her husband’s application for medical assistance to take his own life – about which I blogged at the time. Whether she has any locus to do so is another matter – and one to which I do not know the answer.

Comment: Readers will recall that the strap-line of the self-appointed Commission on Assisted Dying chaired by Lord Falconer of Thoroton was that “The current legal status of assisted dying is inadequate and incoherent…”. Since that group reported, the debate seem to have got into a pretty fair mess: no-one, even a year ago, could have imagined that two ministers in the Department of Health would come out in support of a change in the law and step well outside their ministerial responsibilities as they did so. (Incidentally, whatever happened to the doctrine of collective responsibility? Has it been an inevitable casualty of Coalition politics?)

The British Medical Association opposes any amendment of the current law; the BMA’s President, Baroness Hollins, told Sky News that

“To change the law would be to change the boundary between life and death altogether. That’s a journey I just don’t want us to even start out on in this country”.

Nor is reform the policy of any of the three major political parties. But it is an issue that evokes strong reactions on both sides – as witnessed by the fact that the original story on the BBC website attracted 475 responses before it was closed for comments.

And in Scotland Margo Macdonald MSP continues to promote her Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill:

“Proposal for a Bill to enable a competent adult with a terminal illness or condition to request assistance to end their own life, and to decriminalise certain actions taken by others to provide such assistance”.

Her current Bill, which was lodged 23 January 2012, is the successor to her End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill) that was defeated at Stage 1 on 1 December 2010. The new Bill was the subject of a consultation which closed 30 April 2012.

Even though it is a reasonable assumption that the second Scottish Bill will meet the same fate as the first, it is tolerably clear that, like the debate about same-sex marriage, the assisted suicide issue is not going to go away. Quite apart from the basic moral issue, even if one agrees that there are circumstances in which it would be morally-right to help someone die the problem remains of making sure that any change in the law would be hedged around with adequate safeguards. The difficulty of doing so is summed up very neatly by Andrew Brown in a typically-thoughtful piece in The Guardian:

“… changing interpretations of the Abortion Act show how little legal safeguards are worth when the sentiment behind them evaporates. Whether or not you think that British women ought to have access to abortion on demand, that’s not what the law says, nor what Parliament intended in 1967”.

3 thoughts on “Assisted dying – the debate continues

  1. Pingback: The last three months: “law and religion” in 100 posts? | Law & Religion UK

  2. The BBC reports that “Martin”, whose application to the Administrative Court was heard with Tony Nicklinson’s in Nicklinson, R (on the application of) v Ministry of Justice [2012] EWHC 2381 is seeking leave to appeal against the refusal of judicial review.

  3. Pingback: Church responds to Assisted Dying Bill Consultation | Law & Religion UK

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