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Let's legalise it and regulate it - or perhaps not!

more: Articles, Opinion, Articles/Opinion

5th May 2009

Let's legalise it and regulate it - or perhaps not!

Libby Purves has written an interesting piece in The Times this week. She cites an experiment in Holland to dispense with traffic lights at certain road junctions based on evidence that drivers will approach them more cautiously and the result will be fewer accidents as well as smoother-flowing traffic. The motorists among us will probably nod their heads: it is certainly arguable that some traffic lights at least not only cause congestion but also confer a false sense of security on those who use them.

But Libby Purves speculates that there might be a wider lesson to be drawn from this - namely, that regulatory laws can often have the effect of making us abandon our sense of personal responsibility and simply follow the rules on the basis that they must be right. " I found myself wondering", she writes, "whether society itself has more automatic traffic lights than is good for it". She quotes as examples the all-pervading health and safety culture and the current debate about MPs allowances, in which claims that many people would regard as unjustifiable are often defended on the argument that they fell 'within the rules'.

There is, perhaps, another example to add to Ms Purves's list - 'assisted dying'. Here we have laws which are perfectly clear - you do not kill people and you do not help them to kill themselves. These laws are, however, under threat from a brigade of activists who claim they aren't clear enough and who want to define in detailed regulations the circumstances in which, they suggest, killing and assistance with suicide should be legal.

Ms Purves is right when she says that "we need the big red lights: 'don't kill, hurt, imprison, steal or cheat'" but that we don't need "micromanaging regulations, refining things down and creating pointless red lights". And, she adds, "it is always better to have general laws and let people think for themselves" and "the more detailed the rules, the less responsible people feel for their own honour and common sense".

She is absolutely right. The criminal law is there to warn us off doing certain things that are bad for society as a whole even if we feel they may be right for us individually at particular moments - things like killing, stealing and injuring. The law fully recognises that there may be occasional instances when such actions might possibly be justified - for example, killing in self-defence or stealing to feed a starving family. But it deals with these situations by looking carefully at each and every case that arises and deciding, on the basis of common sense, whether a prosecution or a prison sentence is called for. In that way we have maximum deterrence combined with compassion in appropriate cases.

But this isn't good enough for those who want to legalise 'assisted dying'. What they want is a regulatory law licensing us to assist people to commit suicide and prescribing in detail which groups of people we can help to kill themselves and under what circumstances we can do it. It isn't as if there's a problem here. We have good palliative care for the dying in this country and, as recent research has shown, the incidence of law-breaking by doctors is negligible. In effect, we are being urged to install traffic lights when the traffic is flowing freely and safely and to replace judgements based on good sense with regulations based on arbitrary criteria. The whole idea is completely mad.

Stop, get ready, go: let common sense begin

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