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Michael Grosvenor Myer

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3rd December 2008

The Daily Mail story is truly heart-rending, but it's still no reason to change the law...

Michael Grosvenor Myer

On 3rd December, the Daily Mail featured the story of Michael Grosvenor Myer who says that his wife, a sufferer from Parkinson's Disease, took her own life last year and that, though he had reason to believe the suicide was going to take place, he absented himself from home in order to avoid intervening to prevent it.

This is a sad story, and most people will have sympathy with the situation in which Mr Myer and his wife found themselves. But the story is not being told simply to arouse our sympathy; it is being told also in order to press the case for a change in the law to allow assistance with suicide. For this reason we have to take an objective and dispassionate look at the arguments.

It is undeniable that there are people who are quite clear in their minds that, under certain circumstances (such as terminal illness), they want to end their lives at a time and place and in a manner of their own choosing. Indeed, many of us say, when we are healthy, that we have no wish to 'linger on' if we are seriously ill and that we would rather 'get it over with': it's the sort of thing people say when they are not actually seriously ill or facing death. Committing suicide is not itself a criminal offence; it's helping someone to do it that's illegal. Parliament rejected proposals in 2006 to change the law to allow this in the case of terminally ill people. Why?

The problem with explaining why is that the only cases that the public tend to see are the few highly emotive ones that either come before the courts or involve people being helped to go to Switzerland to end their lives there. It's difficult, when we are exposed to harrowing stories in the press such as that of Mr Myer and his late wife, to remember that the law which forbids assistance with suicide is there for a very good reason – to prevent pressure and coercion being exerted on vulnerable people to end their own lives by others whose motives are less honourable than those of Mr Myer. However deeply our emotions may be stirred by tales of determined people who want assistance to commit suicide, the plain fact is that the overwhelming majority of chronically or terminally ill people do not want to end their lives but that many people in this situation are vulnerable to pressures, at least as much from within themselves as from others, to 'do the decent thing' and spare their families a burden as well as to more direct coercion from others who may stand to gain from their deaths.

It is important not to make the mistake of assuming that the circumstances of these rare cases which receive media publicity are the norm. They are very much the exception. It is in the nature of the media to publicise exceptional cases: what happens to most people every day is just not news. The argument is sometimes put that, if the CPS often uses its discretion not to prosecute and if the courts often hand out lenient sentences for those who are charged with assistance with suicide, then we may as well change the law to allow it. But that ignores an important factor. A key reason why there are so few cases and why those we hear about tend to be heart-rending ones is that the law is having the desired deterrent effect. An 'assisted dying' law would not just make life easier for those involved in genuinely 'hard cases': it would also open up a loophole for less scrupulous people to help others on their way out of this world.

But, the proponents of a change in the law tell us, there would be 'safeguards' in any new law. But how safe is a safeguard? The trouble with the safeguards we have seen to date in 'assisted dying' bills presented to Parliament is that they assume the existence of a perfect world – a world in which all terminally ill people know their own minds clearly and are fully resolved to die and a world in which all doctors know their patients well enough to spot things like internal but undisclosed pressures and who have limitless time and outstanding abilities for diagnosis and prognosis. The real world just isn't like this. Many people have doctors who are members of busy multi-partner urban practices, not the idealised 'family doctor'; many terminally ill patients veer between hope and despair, wanting to die one day and to live the next. The evidence from Oregon, where assisted suicide was legalised eleven years ago, is that as many as one in six of those who took their lives with the help of lethal but legal drugs from their doctors were suffering from treatable but undiagnosed depression. And all this is to say nothing of the very real conflict between 'assisted dying' and medical ethics.

In a word, however much we may have real sympathy with cases such as that of Mr Myer and his late wife, we should beware of regarding them as being the norm among chronically or terminally ill people. And we should remember that the primary purpose of all laws is to protect the interests of the vulnerable majority rather than to give 'rights' to a determined minority. And, when attempts are made to reassure us with 'safeguards', we should look carefully at what they would mean for most people in practice rather than just on paper.

Care Not Killing

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