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Assisted suicide proposals not debated in Commons

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24th March 2009

Parliament did not discuss the amendment tabled by Patricia Hewitt which would have exposed British people to the hazards of overseas suicide regimes

In its Report Stage debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill yesterday, Parliament did not discuss an amendment which would have exposed British people to the hazards of overseas suicide regimes. The amendment was tabled in the name of former Health Minister Patricia Hewitt, though there has been some speculation in the press over the weekend that its prime mover may perhaps have been Evan Harris, to whom some have given the name 'Dr Death' for his uncritical promotion of abortion and euthanasia. The purpose behind the amendment, we were told, was to remove the threat of prosecution from people who accompanied friends and relatives to Switzerland to commit suicide under the aegis of the Dignitas suicide organisation. In practice, it would have made it legal for anyone to help another person to go abroad to commit suicide or undergo euthanasia for any reason whatever.

What did the amendment say?

Under the Suicide Act 1961 it is an offence to "aid, abet, counsel or procure" the suicide of another person. The reason is obvious - to deter people who might be minded to apply pressure to hasten the death of a vulnerable person for private gain. The law applies to all assisters with suicide irrespective of their motive, but it is administered with discretion and, where there is no evidence of coercion and abuse, charges are generally not brought - as we have seen in cases of relatives who have accompanied a family member to Switzerland. But such discretion does not satisfy the pro-euthanasia lobby: they want to see a law specifically legalising assistance with suicide in prescribed circumstances - for example, people who are terminally ill and are believed to be mentally competent.

The Government is attempting, via the Coroners and Justice Bill, to tighten up the law on suicide. In the wake of a spate of suicides of young people in and around the town of Bridgend, the Government has put before Parliament proposals to outlaw internet websites that encourage or promote suicide. Its proposals would amend the Suicide Act 1961 so as to make illegal "acts capable of encouraging or assisting suicide".

Ms Hewitt's amendment would have made an exception to this. It would have exempted from prosecution any such act "done solely or principally for the purpose of enabling or assisting a person to travel to a country or territory in which assisted dying is lawful".

What's wrong with the amendment?

But think what such an amendment, if it had been accepted, would have meant:

It would have allowed anyone, whether ill or not, whether mentally competent or not, to receive assistance to go abroad to commit suicide under the laws of another country. What, one might ask, has this got to do with relieving suffering, which is what the pro-euthanasia lobby claims to be its objective? How can this be reconciled with claims about safeguards?

Nor would it have licensed only assistance with suicide. Notice that the phrase used is 'assisted dying' - a popular euphemism with the pro-euthanasia lobby that has no meaning in UK law but which is held to include euthanasia as well as assisted suicide.

It would have put British citizens at the mercy of whatever laws, with whatever conditions, applied in the countries to which they might have gone. It would, in effect, have amounted to Parliament washing its hands of British people who might choose to go abroad for suicide.

It would have opened the floodgates for any kind of assistance with suicide, whether altruistic or not. The Swiss cases that have been high-profiled in the media of late are not at all typical of what we would see if the law was to be changed. There are very few of them - over the last five years they have accounted for less than one in every thirty thousand deaths of Britons - and they tend to be the 'hard cases'. The deterrent effect of the law sees to that: with the threat of a 14-year jail sentence, anyone minded to help a suicide needs to be very sure that his or her motives will stand up to scrutiny after the event as involving no coercion or abuse. Take that deterrent away and you would see a very different picture emerging, especially with the almost total absence of conditions that Ms Hewitt's amendment shows.

To make assistance with suicide easier for some people is itself tantamount to encouraging the act. To have done this, at the same time and in the same piece of legislation in which the Government is introducing an offence of encouraging suicide would have been farcical.

Those who are behind all this have been trying to think up specious arguments to justify what they are doing. Dignity in Dying, the re-branded Voluntary Euthanasia Society, asks us to believe that there is a distinction to be drawn between malicious encouragement of suicide and compassionate help for suffering people who want it. But this division of the world into villains who maliciously incite others to suicide and kind and altruistic children who reluctantly give in to a parent's demands to give help with suicide is unrealistic. These stereotypes are the extremes of the spectrum. Most people are in the grey area in between - the parent who feels a misplaced duty to end his life in order to take a care burden off the shoulders of a struggling family, the elderly person with a legacy to leave behind who could all too easily be persuaded by others anxious to inherit that taking her own life might be easier and more dignified. And let us not forget the spouses or children who want to say 'no' to a husband or wife or parent who asks for help to commit suicide. These people, whose position is strengthened by the law as it stands, need to be considered every bit as much as any who might be minded to say 'yes'.

In The Times yesterday, the Archbishop if Cardiff reminded us of what Baroness Warnock, herself a committed supporter of legalised euthanasia, said - that people with dementia were wasting other people's lives and NHS resources and should consider whether they had a duty to end their own lives. This is the silent and vulnerable majority that the law now protects, as much from themselves as from others. These are the people who would have been put at risk by the irresponsible amendment of Ms Hewitt and her friends.

However, the danger is not yet past. The Bill will go now to the House of Lords, and it seems likely that certain Peers will try again after Easter to get an amendment of this nature accepted. They have tried three times in the last six years to get 'assisted dying' bills through Parliament and failed. Now they are trying a different tack - to amend another bill to legalise assistance with suicide outside Britain but in such a way as to provide a stepping stone to legalising it here. And, if they were to secure that objective, they would begin campaigning to extend the law to allow full euthanasia along Dutch lines. If we want to avoid getting onto this well-polished slippery slope, we must stand firm here.


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