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The Explainer: Is Britain about to legalise assisted suicide?

A guide to the harder-to-grasp aspects of Catholic news stories

By on Friday, 4 July 2014

Lord Falconer will present the Bill to the House of Lords on Friday July 18

Lord Falconer will present the Bill to the House of Lords on Friday July 18

For at least a decade there has been a determined, well-funded campaign to legalise physician-assisted suicide in Britain. Campaigners have brought the issue again and again to Parliament and to the courts, without success. Will it be different this time?

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will receive its second reading in the House of Lords on July 18. Here we explain the background to the Bill, what is says and what’s at stake.

The background

After a failed attempt to amend the Suicide Act via the Coroner’s and Justice Bill in 2009, Lord Falconer established a Commission on Assisted Dying in November 2010. The stated purpose of the commission was to examine the evidence for introducing assisted suicide in Britain by inviting people to submit written and oral evidence. The commission attracted criticism from some quarters because the campaign group Dignity in Dying and author Terry Pratchett, who support a change in the law, funded the project.

The commission concluded that the law should be changed to allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Lord Falconer based his current Bill on the findings and recommendations of his commission.

What does the Falconer Bill say?

Lord Falconer’s Bill, if made law, would allow doctors to prescribe terminally-ill patients, with a prognosis of six months or less, with lethal drugs in order to end their lives. It is broadly based on Oregon’s law which legalised assisted suicide in 1998 and there has been an almost five-fold increase in assisted deaths since the law came into force.

What are opponents’ concerns about the Bill?

Following the publication of the latest version of Lord Falconer’s Bill, a report by 11 parliamentarians criticised the Bill for its lack of transparency. They concluded: “It relegates important questions such as how mental capacity and clear and settled intent are to be established to codes of practice to be drawn up after an assisted suicide law has been approved by Parliament.” The full critique can be read here.

What are the main problems with introducing physician-assisted suicide?

The Medical Profession:

In Lord Falconer’s report he argued that a key safeguard under an assisted suicide law would be the doctor patient relationship.

Yesterday the British Medical Association reiterated its opposition to assisted suicide. The Royal College of Physicians, The Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Surgeons all oppose a change in the law.

If doctors don’t want assisted suicide and won’t participate, there is a risk that if the practice is introduced in this country, a phenomenon of “doctor shopping” will emerge as it has in the US state of Oregon. This means that patients will have to shop around for a compliant doctor who may have very little knowledge of the patient beyond their case notes.

The Law:

Assisting a suicide in this country is punishable for up to 14 years in jail.

Criminal QC Lord Carlile of Berriew argues that the law as it stands has a “stern face but a kind heart.” It provides a strong deterrent for people who might maliciously assist a suicide while exercising compassion in certain circumstances.

The law as it stands retains the vital and natural principle that we do not involve ourselves in bringing about the deaths of other people. Opponents such as Baroness Butler-Sloss argue that once the natural boundary shifts it will then become very hard to police.

Parliament:

The last major vote in Parliament on assisted suicide was at the Second Reading of the Lord Joffe Bill which was rejected in 2006. Since then the topic has been debated on numerous occasions, including the vote on Lord Falconer’s amendment in 2009 and MP Richard Ottoway’s debate in the House of Commons in 2012.

In March 2010, following the Debbie Purdy ruling in the House of Lords, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer clarified the circumstances in which prosecution for assisting a suicide were more or less likely. The guidelines were based on an extensive public consultation which Mr Starmer described as “probably the biggest test of public opinion on assisted suicide.” They made clear that a victim’s state of health should not be a factor taken into consideration when weighing up the case for and against prosecution for assisting a suicide.

What will happen next?

When Lord Joffe’s Bill was debated at Second Reading in the House of Lords, Lord Carlile of Berriew took the unusual step of dividing the house and the Bill was rejected following the vote. But there will not necessarily be a vote on July 18 when Lord Falconer’s Bill is debated at Second Reading. If the Bill proceeds through all the legislative stages in the House of Lords it will then arrive in the House of Commons for debate and will be voted on. The timeline of the typical legislative process can be found here.

Peers and MPs will be allowed a free vote on the issue.