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Falconer Bill: defeat in detail?

more: Articles, Legislation, Articles/Legislation, Falconer Bill, Articles/Falconer Bill

4th November 2014

The Assisted Dying Bill goes before the House of Lords in Committee on Friday 7 November

Falconer Bill: defeat in detail?

Lord Falconer's 'Assisted Dying Bill' seeks to legalise assisted suicide (but not euthanasia) for mentally competent adults (18+) with less than six months to live subject to 'safeguards' under a two doctors' signature model similar to the Abortion Act 1967.

The Bill had an unopposed second reading in the House of Lords on 18 July. This is not unusual for the House of Lords and simply means that, rather than just rejecting it on principle, they were opting to debate it line by line in Committee.

A Supreme Court ruling had earlier in the year put pressure on the Lords to give the Bill a proper hearing. Had they not done so, Lord Falconer or others would keep bringing it back, continuing to use precious parliamentary time and complaining that 'we have not yet had the debate'.

For opponents - and there are many - the tactical options were either to reject the Bill at second reading, as was done with a similar bill from Lord Joffe in 2006, or to so expose its flaws in committee that it would be rejected at third reading.

When the Bill was debated in July thousands wrote to the Lords to complain about its loopholes and inadequacies, and disabled people demonstrated outside the Palace of Westminster.

The depth of feeling across the political spectrum against the Bill was underlined when the Guardian changed its editorial policy to oppose it because of real concerns about public safety.

Already, a lively debate is being lined up for this Friday with peers tabling a substantial number of amendments aimed at exposing the Bill's weaknesses and inconsistencies. More are expected later this week, and the Government is already talking about extending the committee stage so that they can all be heard.

In reality though, is this something of a phoney war? It is conceivable that the Bill may yet come to a final vote in the House of Lords, but both sides are agreed that the chances of it clearing the Commons in the run up to the election are negligible. The most Lord Falconer's supporters can hope for is some sort of Pyrrhic victory, perhaps by winning a vote or two in committee.

The real battle will happen after next May's general election and the chances of the Bill progressing then will depend very much on who is in power. There have been repeated, strong indications that the current House of Commons would not pass it.

Having said all that, it is crucial that those opposed to the Bill make their voices heard. Peers have been buried in letters from the pro-euthanasia lobby in the run up to committee as Dignity in Dying launches its attack.

Now is the time for those opposed to the Bill to urge peers to throw out this deficient draft legislation. We don't need it.

Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide will place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden. This will especially affect people who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed. The right to die can so easily become the duty to die.

The law we have at present does not need changing. The stiff penalties it holds in reserve provide an effective bulwark against exploitation and abuse, but in so doing it still allows judges to act with mercy in hard cases. It also protects vulnerable relatives from being subtly coerced into assisting a suicide against their better judgement.

The pressure people will feel to end their lives if assisted suicide is legalised will be greatly accentuated at this time of economic hardship with families and health budgets under pressure. Elder abuse and neglect by families, carers and institutions are real and dangerous and this is why strong laws are necessary.

Furthermore, experience in other jurisdictions, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and the American states of Oregon and Washington, shows that any change in the law will lead to 'incremental extension' and 'mission creep' as some doctors will actively extend the categories of those to be included - from mentally competent to incompetent, from terminal to chronic illness, from adults to children, from assisted suicide to euthanasia. This process will be almost impossible to police.

It's time to dispatch this bill. Enough has been said. Let's not draw things out too long.

Come and stand with disabled people outside Parliament this Friday at 9am.

Even more importantly, write letters to peers encouraging them to contribute to committee proceedings and, moreover, to vote out the Bill at third reading. You'll find all the briefing information you need on the Care Not Killing website along with the Bill's specific defects and the broader arguments against a change in the law.

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