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27th October 2009

Yet another suicidal amendment is defeated


On Monday 26 October the House of Lords was obliged to debate yet another proposal to legalise assistance with suicide. On 7 July the House had roundly rejected an amendment by Lord Falconer of Thoroton to the Coroners and Justice Bill which would have allowed the friends or relatives of terminally ill people who so wished to take them abroad for assisted suicide in Switzerland, where that sort of thing is legal. On Monday night Lord Alderdice brought forward another amendment to the Bill that would have legalised assistance with suicide given to people with "a confirmed, incurable and disabling illness which prevents them from carrying through their own wish to bring their life to a close if the person has received certification from a coroner who has investigated the circumstances, and satisfied himself that it is indeed the free and settled wish of the person that they bring their life to a close."

Introducing his amendment, Lord Alderdice said that he had tabled it to facilitate discussion of a difficult and complex subject rather than with the intention of pressing it to a vote. It is perhaps as well that he made this observation at the outset of the debate as the general hostility of the House towards his amendment was such as to make clear to him that a division held little prospect of its being accepted.

Lord Alderdice believed that his amendment was "a matter of disability rights". He explained this by contrasting the help that is given to a disabled person to study at university with the absence of help given to a seriously ill disabled person to commit suicide. This was a comparison which Lord Tebbit described as "totally absurd".

Baroness Butler-Sloss told the House that she had consulted the Coroners Society of England and Wales and was surprised to find that Lord Alderdice had had no discussions with them prior to tabling his amendment. The Society had raised with her a number of valid objections, including that the amendment would place on coroners "a new and alien duty" which was at variance with their statutory role, which was to conduct "post mortem investigations, not ante mortem investigations".

Disabled Peer Baroness Campbell spoke of "profound, far-reaching consequences which strike fear into the lives of those who struggle to make society recognise that their lives have value". Lord Patten said that the amendment "singles out sick people for special treatment under the Coroners and Justice Bill and proposes, in effect, that they be more eligible for assistance with suicide than the rest of us who are fit, well and healthy". It was, he said, "axiomatic that the law must afford equal protection to all citizens regardless of their age, sex, ethnic origin, religion and, indeed, state of health". The amendment may possibly "suit a small number of highly resolute sick people who want assistance to end their lives, but it would afford a lesser standard of protection under the law to others who may feel under pressure to end their lives, whether from others or from within themselves".

Baroness Finlay believed that the amendment amounted to euthanasia rather than assisted suicide. "The Dutch experience", she said, "has shown that a considerable number of people do not feel psychologically able to commit suicide but find the passive role of holding out their arm easier". She drew attention also to the wide scope of the amendment and to a large number of questions that it left unanswered:

"The amendment covers most medical conditions from childhood onwards. 'Disabling and incurable illness' is anything from arthritis to diabetes. There is not even a requirement here that the disease is particularly advanced. There is no requirement that the person has capacity. How long should their so-called "free and settled wish" persist? Does the certificate ever expire before the patient?"

Baroness O'Cathain recounted her recent experience of a friend of 42 years who had been diagnosed as terminally ill and had asked for assistance to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide. Her subsequent experience of the hospice movement, however, had changed her perception completely. "The hospice movement offered love, respite and the experience of feeling safe. Let us face it, the nearest and dearest of people who face this diagnosis are not necessarily the people who can deal with it best. The demands on them in emotional terms are absolutely awful, which I know from family experience".

When it became clear after an hour's debate that there was little support for the amendment, the House decided, on Lord Goodhart's suggestion, to bring the debate to a close. Lord Alderdice agreed to withdraw his amendment.

The result of this is that the Coroners and Justice Bill will now leave the House of Lords without having been amended to legalise assistance with suicide. It has been a hard but worthwhile fight to ensure that a law that is designed, among other things, to protect vulnerable people by outlawing predatory internet websites and encouragement to suicide was not distorted by the pro-euthanasia lobby to legalise assistance with suicide at the same time.

This is not, however, by any means the end of the battle. The interim guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) regarding the prosecution of cases of assisted suicide are out for consultation. Care Not Killing will be responding to this consultation in the coming weeks and we urge all our members to respond also, whether as organisations or as individuals. The closing date for responses is 16 December.

There is also the prospect of yet another 'assisted dying' bill to be introduced as a Private Member's Bill into either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. We have a busy year ahead of us...

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