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Coroners and Justice Bill - updated Suicide Act clears committee stage

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10th March 2009

Updated Suicide Act clears committee stage

Three sections of this Bill (Clauses 46-48) are designed to tighten up the 1961 Suicide Act to outlaw encouragement and promotion of suicide by internet websites. We are pleased to see that these sensible clauses have now passed the Committee Stage unamended, notwithstanding 'probing' amendments tabled by certain MPs who wish to legalise assistance with suicide while banning its encouragement.

The Bill will shortly go to its Report Stage in the House of Commons, where it is likely that pro-euthanasia campaigners will mount a more determined onslaught and try to hijack the Bill to meet their own single-issue agenda. We therefore welcome the Parliamentary Brief that has been sent to all Members of both Houses of Parliament by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Dying Well: the APPG exists to promote investment in palliative care and to warn of the dangers to all of us that would come from legalising what is being euphemistically called 'assisted dying'.

The discussion of these clauses of the Bill in Committee on 3 March was revealing. David Howarth MP (Liberal-Democrat, Cambridge) alleged that "fairly substantial numbers of people are assisted in dying by medical practitioners of various sorts". "Medical practitioners", he continued, "are frank about that, although they will keep identities out of the picture". This is an old chestnut of the pro-euthanasia lobby - it's the all-too-familiar campaigning argument, which we heard forty years ago in the context of abortion, to the effect that 'it's happening already, so let's regulate it by legalising it'. Those who argue in this way usually say, as Mr Howarth himself has done, that of course they are not in a position to cite any specific cases of abuse.

Others have looked into the matter more thoroughly. Professor Clive Seale of Brunel University published two reports in 2006, based on confidential data from practising physicians, about infringement of the law in Britain as against other countries, including some which had legalised 'assisted dying'. The results, for those who care to read them, are very interesting. The rate of illegal action by doctors in Britain is reported as "extremely low". Moreover, illegal action by doctors in the UK is not only miniscule in its incidence but also much lower than in countries which have legalised 'assisted dying'. A House of Lords select committee which examined the same sort of allegations as Mr Howarth is now making came to much the same conclusions in 2005.

Mr Howarth helpfully took the opportunity on 3 March to explain to the Committee the position of his party on the subject of 'assisted dying'. The Liberal-Democrats, it seems, "are in favour of medically assisted dying in cases of terminal illness or severe, incurable, progressive physical illness where patients are without hope of recovery". That information is certainly worth noting. Sponsors of previous Private Member bills on the subject have been insistent that their proposals are limited to terminally ill people with a prognosis of six months or less. It would appear, however, that the Liberal-Democrat Party would go even further, with its advocacy of euthanasia for the chronically as well as the terminally ill.

Mr Howarth told the Committee that he suspected assisted suicide would "dominate the Report Stage". We hope therefore that MPs of all parties will pay heed to the dangers that lie in store here and speak up in the name of the silent majority of vulnerable people with serious illness, whom the law as its stands protects.

Care Not Killing Alliance

Parliamentary brief

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