A friend phoned me yesterday. We discussed the Independent Commission on Assisted Dying, due to publish its report this Thursday and which is expected to argue that those who encourage or assist another to die will no longer be threatened with prosecution in certain cases. “It will happen”, my friend said ominously: “There are too many old people in this country and we can’t afford to keep them alive.”
I will like to say she is wrong – but I fear she is right. On Monday Lord Falconer, former Lord Chancellor, wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph which the phrase “weasel words” do not begin to describe. Given the sonorous title “A duty of care to our last days on Earth”, one might assume from this alone that it meant care of the dying until natural death. Not a bit of it. Lord Falconer has been a prime mover behind the idea of assisted suicide and it has nothing to do with a true “duty of care”.
The article relates that the Commission has listened to more than 40 witnesses and considered submissions from 1200 individuals and institutions. This is hardly comprehensive, given the gravity of the project’s purpose. Which institutions were included? And how did the Commission weigh up their findings if their conclusions are, as we expect, foregone?
The Commissioners also travelled to countries and states, such as Switzerland, Oregon and Holland, where a form of assisted suicide is lawful. This was an expensive and unnecessary exercise, only undertaken so that Falconer could say “we have looked at this from every angle” and convey to the reader a false security when he states, with reference to Dignitas, the notorious Swiss clinic, the Commissioners “did not like much of what they saw.”
Apparently they were not over-pleased by Holland either, which allows young people, aged 12-17, to request an assisted death “as long as the parents give their consent”. Falconer asks virtuously, “Would that be acceptable in Britain? We doubt it.” Oregon got a similar No-no. Good old Falconer; in Britain we want to do things properly, in the low-key, dignified, mustn’t grumble way we Brits always do things. “We have tried to provide a possible way forward, which addresses the need for safeguards. It is a difficult subject. But for many people it has a profound effect on whether or not their last days on Earth are bearable.” I like the choice of words like ‘safeguards’, ‘profound’ and ‘bearable’; they give an extra gloss of seriousness to what is indeed a difficult – actually, life or death – subject.
But it is Lord Falconer’s use of the word “compassion” that most put me on my guard. He writes: “The Director of Public prosecutions’ guidelines indicate that where the prospective defendant [in a case of assisted suicide] was motivated wholly by compassion, it is unlikely that a prosecution should be brought.” He adds (as he would), “We found no one in our evidence who wanted the assister to be prosecuted if their assistance to help a loved one to die was motivated by compassion.”
Does Lord Falconer have no understanding of human nature? Or has he wilfully ignored what he knows to be the case? That is, none of us can be sure that in the case of a dying friend or, much more likely, a relative, we are motivated “wholly by compassion” when we deliberately help them to die. It suggests we are much more saintly than we really are.
How can we be sure that we are not influenced by a financial interest in their death; that we are not driven by selfishness, low reserves of patience or our own inability to cope with their situation?
I care for my almost 88-year-old mother, who lives next door to me. For her age she is still, thank God, in reasonable health. But she has her bad days when she feels low and knows she will never recapture the vigour of her earlier life (and it was a very vigorous life). Recently, in one of these episodes, she told me she hated feeling weak and unable to be as independent as she wanted. “I don’t want to be a burden on my children like this” she told me forcefully; “I would rather die.” I might add that I do stand to gain financially when she dies. Fortunately, these moments are rare; my mother has a strong religious faith; she has a large family who all love her and who do what they can to make her last years comfortable and happy.
But what about all those vulnerable people whose relatives neglect them and who live in a Home or hospital, or at home, but who are not looked after properly by staff or carers; who die by inches of loneliness and despair. It is fatally easy in such cases to introduce the ‘compassionate’ idea that they would be “better off dead.” What is to stop the juggernaut of assisted suicide slowly advancing on the aged, let alone those who have a terminal illness?
We must fight Falconer and his conscientious, hard-working Commissioners all the way.