Dominating article on front page of today's Telegraph reading "Call to legalise assisted suicide". Interesting in the sense of why was it there today. Nothing significant has happened. The Telegraph has allowed today's edition to be used as a part of a 'softening up' exercise - preparing the ground for a carefully planned 'offensive' later in the year to change the law which criminalises assisted suicide. I look on it as the opening salvo of a battle to come, lurking just over the horizon.
The issue is very sensitive and complex. The Suicide Act 1961 decriminalised suicide. The same act created the offence of assisting suicide. This is a bit odd in that since 1961 it has been a criminal offence to help someone do something which is not an offence! Its also unusual in that any prosecution requires the specific consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The purpose of the Suicide Act was to prevent legal action against extremely vulnerable people, who had attempted suicide, without undermining the sanctity of human life. Its a typically British approach to the law - based on common sense, compromise and precedent. The law has not been invoked since 1961 where reasonableness suggests it shouldn't have been. There have been few, if any, cases where the DPP's consent has been given to a prosecution which was obviously undesirable.
Yet, despite the above, there has been an ongoing campaign to change the law, and make assisting suicide legal. The campaign is usually conducted with reference to the sort of cases which precedent indicates that prosecution would not take place. The argument for change is based on a human right (within the EU Convention) to end one's life at a time, and in a place, and in circumstances of one's own choosing. Article 8 reads 'Everyone has a right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence' - but it is qualified by what follows. There have been some slight non-fundamental changes as a consequence of legal cases involving Dianne Pretty and Debbie Purdy.
Now to today's Telegraph article. Lord Falconer, former Labour lord chancellor and long term advocate of changing the law is heading an inquiry by the think tank, Demos, entitled 'Commission on Assisted Dying'. Its a title that makes it seem in some way 'independent' which it is very definitely not. Lord Falconer's intention is to publish a report that looks 'weighty' as a base for a change in the law that he has long wanted to see. A social care 'expert' named Martin Green has been giving evidence to Lord Falconer's Committee, and the Telegraph has been persuaded to give great prominence to what he's had to say. His arguments are those that have been used, and rejected, in the past.
Now to why I oppose a change in the law. A secondary reason is that, as Martin Green concedes, it is not possible to eliminate the risk that people will change their minds, particularly people with dementia who go through major personality changes as the disease progresses. Another secondary reason is that the unscrupulous will use the law to remove inconvenient elderly and disabled through pressure on vulnerable people. But for me much the strongest argument is the pressure which will be generated by self-generated pressure and society norms on the elderly and disabled to remove the burden that they represent by suicide. I am a Board Member of 'Living and Dying Well' a public policy research organisation committed to evidence-based consideration of the facts surrounding the issue of the assisted dying debate in the UK. Our Chairman is Lord Carlile of Berriew - two former next door neighbours uniting in the UK Parliament on a social issue of great importance to both of us. Without strong evidence to demonstrate that my concerns will be assuaged, I will do what I can to resist a change in the law to legalise assisted suicide.