Friday, 10 July 2015

Private Members Bill on Assisted Suicide

Thank you for contacting me about assisted suicide.

I appreciate your concern on this very sensitive issue. Coping with terminal illness is distressing and difficult both for the patient and their families. These cases are truly moving and evoke the highest degree of compassion and emotion.

A Private Members Bill seeking to legalise Assisted Suicide is to be brought before Parliament in September 2015. This issue, probably more than any other that this Parliament is likely to consider, is a matter of conscience.

I have a great deal of sympathy for people on both sides of this issue. I have considered my own views very carefully before reaching a conclusion. My personal belief is that I could not support any legislation that would legalise assisted dying. I intend to attend the debate and I will be voting against the bill. There are many factors that bring me to this view.

The law, which already makes provision for such circumstances, is working, and does not need changing. Assisting or encouraging suicide is a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 for which the maximum penalty is 14 years’ imprisonment. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions (“DPP”) has discretion not to prosecute in certain compassionate cases.   

Guidelines published by the DPP are primarily concerned with advising the Crown Prosecution Service on the factors they need to consider when deciding whether it is in the public interest to prosecute a person for assisting or encouraging another to commit suicide.  The DPP’s policy offers important and sensitive guidance on when to prosecute, but makes clear that assisting a person to die is still illegal and anyone doing this faces the risk of a murder charge if prosecuted.

If, as a society, we made assisted suicide legal, we would in my view, be fundamentally changing the very foundation of our civil society. We would be legitimising the fears and anxieties of so many sick and vulnerable people who worry that they are a burden on those around them and on society more widely. As a compassionate society, our response to suicidal feelings must never be a lethal injection.

For every person that we might consider to have a clear and settled wish to end their lives, there are countless others who are vulnerable, despairing and often lacking in support who may feel under pressure – internal or external – to go through with this decision.

This is the main reason that no major disability group favours a change in the law. This Bill legitimises the idea that suicide is a solution for disability and severe sickness. Where assisted suicide is legal around the world, the data shows that those who choose suicide are almost invariably disabled. They need assistance to live, not assistance to die.

Those who support assisted dying often point to safeguards as the remedy to this problem. But, as years of debate on this issue in the House of Lords has shown, there is no safeguard that would be sufficient to stop a person who feels a burden on their family, friend or caregivers from ending their life; nor can doctors accurately assess this, or worse, pressure or abuse which does regrettably exist, in certain cases.

This is why none of the Royal Medical Colleges support a change in the law. In fact, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Physicians, actively oppose such a change for that very reason. Legalising assisting dying would fundamentally change the nature of the doctor/patient relationship. A doctor is not a detective and cannot reasonably be expected to investigate all of the relevant social factors involved in such a grave decision. That would take a close, consistent and long-term relationship which very few doctors have with their patients today. Any suggestion that this fundamental problem can be lessened by the arbitration on by a High Court judge is similarly groundless, as the judge would have even less knowledge and capacity to judge whether pressure, overt or covert, had been placed on the individual.

I am also concerned that, as has been the case in other countries, legalising assisted suicide would lead to demands for legalisation of other forms of euthanasia – for example in Belgium, where in 2002, a euthanasia law was passed for adults, in 2014 – a law was passed enabling children to be euthanized. In Oregon – upon which this assisted suicide law is based - the extension of their assisted suicide law is currently being considered.

In Britain, we lead the world in palliative care. Our response to the physical and emotional pain of terminal illness must be to show compassion by extending and developing this further. Not by letting people die when they most need encouragement and assistance to live.

My view is that if we were to legalise assisted dying we would be crossing a line that would lead to the devaluing of life. This is not something I am prepared to support.