Two articles in today's Mail on Sunday have been read twice by this blogger. The rest of today's copy is c**p, (especially the quite incredible tripe which filled page three). The subject under discussion was assisted suicide. The writers were Terry Pratchett and William Rees-Mogg. High class content of intellectual power, unmatched by anything in today's Telegraph. Terry Pratchett is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease (and has already done a truly wonderful job in opening up discussion and understanding of this terrible affliction). He tells us that he will want to commit suicide before the disease finally "wipes his brain clean". Like Debbie Purdy, he makes an argument which is almost impossible to challenge. I know that the majority will side with these two impressive individuals, but yet again I find myself in a minority on a great social issue of our time. I'm with William Rees-Mogg on this - as is usually the case.
I fully accept that the law on assisted suicide is illogical. Our law often is. We know that there have been several cases where 'assistance' of some sort has been given to people who have travelled abroad to end their own lives. On the face of it, this is not lawful. And yet, no action has been taken. The Director of Public Prosecutions has decided in every case to use his discretion to take no action. But last week, there was an important ruling which presages big change. The Law Lords agreed with Debbie Purdy, who suffers from MS, that the DPP should prepare clear and definite guidance on when 'assistance' would be legal, and when it would be illegal. The discretion would remain with the DPP, but the rules by which the discretion would apply must be framed in law, so that everyone knows the circumstances when action legal action will follow assisting someone to commit suicide. Its difficult to disagree with this - until you think it through.
No-one, unless guided by strong religious belief will see anything wrong with assistance being given to two such strong characters as Terry Pratchett and Debbie Purdy. They will probably know when the time to go has been reached. But so many others are not strong minded, and many will be hopelessly vulnerable when they are ill and old. In a few year's time we will reach a stage when it will become standard practice to inform the old and ill that they have the right to assistance to commit suicide. Oh yes, there will be safeguards and assurances, but people who love their families, and feel a responsibility to help them financially rather than be a continuing burden will become increasingly pressured (from within themselves, rather than from unscrupulous beneficiaries from an earlier death) to kill themselves.
The idea is that the law should become 'definite'. Debbie Purdy persuaded the Law Lords that she needs to know precisely what her husband can do, to protect him from criminal sanction. But the law is never definite. Its based on precedent and majority opinion. Every time the DPP exercises discretion it will creating new precedent and there will continue to be argument about individual cases. What I fear is a ratchet of death, whereby the circumstances in which assisted suicide is legal will rapidly expand to a degree that creates a level of pressure on the old and ill that I will find unacceptable. When we look at other jurisdictions across the world we see law that we consider deeply immoral. Well, I fear that through responding to the emotional argument presented to them, the Law Lords have created an opening for immorality to become embedded in our own law.