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The Commission on Assisted Dying

more: Articles, Opinion, Articles/Opinion

2nd December 2010

This partisan body won't be assisting anyone; Nor will I assist it. The Commission on Assisted Dying is a wolf in sheep's clothing

Ilora Finlay
Publication date: 2 December 2010
Source: The Times
Page: 18
© 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved

On Tuesday we saw the launch of a body that calls itself the Commission on Assisted Dying. The terms "commission" and "commissioners" may sound grand, but this group has no official status or authority other than what it derives from those who have set it up.

So, just whose project is this? An article in the British Medical Journal last month tells us that, according to Lord Falconer of Thoroton, "the idea for the commission came from Dignity in Dying, which raised the money for the commission from the bestselling novelist Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer's disease, and from businessman Bernard Lewis". Sir Terry Pratchett is, of course, himself an outspoken advocate of legalising "assisted dying".

In other words, what we have here is a group of people who have been collected together by campaigners for a euthanasia law to conduct what Lord Falconer described at the group's launch on Tuesday as "an objective, dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the issues". The commission will, we are told, "make recommendations as to what, if any, changes [to the law] should be implemented". Those two words "if any" are important, suggesting as they do that the group could recommend that there should be no change in the law. We are told that the commission will be "completely independent".

How credible are these claims? It may be recalled that Lord Falconer, who will be chairing the so-called commission, attempted, in July 2009, to amend the Coroners and Justice Bill to legalise assisted suicide of terminally ill people by taking them abroad. In an impassioned speech introducing his amendment, the former Lord Chancellor, told us that "the law as it stands plainly no longer fits the current situation".

We are being asked to believe, therefore, that a body that is being funded by euthanasia campaigners and chaired by someone who has tried to legalise assisting suicide is going to be completely dispassionate and might conclude that the law does not need changing. Such a conclusion would effectively put the euthanasia campaign out of business.

A glance at the list of commissioners reveals that more than half of them are known to have expressed sympathy with the campaign to change the law. That, of itself, is not as unreasonable as it may sound, provided the commission also contained a comparable presence from the other side of the debate. But I do not recognise one person among the members of this body who has declared opposition to or scepticism about having a euthanasia law.

I am willing to be enlightened, but it does rather look as though those who are bankrolling this body are taking no chances that it might come up with a report that does not serve their cause. That is why I will not give evidence before it, despite being invited.

We are, however, entitled to ask why this commission is necessary at all.

Five years ago the House of Lords appointed a select committee to examine Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. The committee, of which I was a member, contained representatives of varying degrees of commitment on both sides of the debate. It spent more than six months conducting a root-and-branch analysis, not only of Lord Joffe's Bill, but of the whole subject. It took evidence from more than 140 experts in four jurisdictions - the state of Oregon, the Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as the UK; and it produced a thorough three-volume report. There was no consensus on the acceptability of Lord Joffe's Bill, but the committee's comprehensive and balanced analysis of the evidence has provided an authoritative basis for serious debate.

So why do we need another inquiry? Little has changed since then, except that Parliament has twice rejected legalisation on a free vote, the current law has been clarified by new guidelines (welcomed by both sides) issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Oregon's experience of physician-assisted suicide looks more worrying that it did five years ago. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have an attempt to rerun a balanced and authoritative official inquiry with a self-appointed body susceptible to campaigning influence.

I have no problem with another inquiry as such. This is a complex and emotive subject that needs to be considered calmly and with careful analysis of the evidence rather than campaigning spin, of which there has been too much of late. But it is difficult to see how Parliament and the public can have confidence in a body with such clearly partisan origins and structure. Some may see it as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Those bankrolling the body will make sure it serves their cause.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff is Professor of Palliative Care at Cardiff University School of Medicine.

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