In what is seen as a surprise move, the UK Guardian newspaper has editorialized their opposition to the Falconer Bill about to be debated in the UK House of Lords.
The Guardian view on assisted dying: safeguard life
Lord Falconer's bill sounds modest but it will redraw the moral landscape
The law against killing someone is absolute. The law that makes it illegal to help someone to die is also clear, retained in the 1961 legislation that first removed the criminal taint from suicide itself. But the ever-expanding capacity of medicine to keep people alive even when they want to die has led to the forging of some opaque compromises between real life and the law. The current situation is unquestionably messy. But it does not follow that it will be easy to tidy up.
Lord Falconer's bill on assisted dying tries to bring clarity to one narrowly defined area. For the benefit of a very specific group of people, it asks that the law modifies what has until now been an absolute principle: the safeguarding of human life. In individual cases, that can seem the overwhelmingly compassionate decision. Nevertheless, and heartbreaking though such cases can be, the absolute principle is too important to jettison.
The courts have been repeatedly challenged to declare that it is within the law to help someone to die. Most often – as in the case of Debbie Purdy or the late Tony Nicklinson – they are victims of an illness which prevents them, or may in future prevent them, from taking their own lives, and they want the courts to rule that anyone who helps them would not be prosecuted. Ms Purdy won the right for her partner to accompany her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland without fear of prosecution. Mr Nicklinson's wife lost the argument, begun before her husband died,that doctors should be able to help her husband end his life. Last month, the supreme court warned that either parliament must clarify the law, or it would.
The Falconer bill would not make any difference at all in these high-profile legal battles. It applies only to people who are terminally ill, whose doctors believe they have less than six months to live. It specifies that two doctors must certify that the patient is mentally capable of taking the decision, and that they are of settled mind. There is a cooling off period. The patient must be able to administer the medication themselves. But it legitimises the supply of the lethal dose of medication by a health professional, in a form that the patient can ingest.
This is a clarification of the outstanding area of uncertainty in the guidelines that the DPP drew up in February 2010 setting out the circumstances in which there might be a prosecution of someone who had helped another to commit suicide. The effect of the Falconer bill is to end in law the bar on helping to kill someone. In any given case, that may seem a necessary price to pay for an end to the extreme suffering that can only be escaped in death. There have recently been many intensely moving descriptions by people who have been witness to those moments, or who fear that they will experience them personally.
But most of us do not live or die alone. Death is never a completely private matter, as anyone who has experienced the suicide of someone close would testify. Nor is the value of life something that can be assessed independently of family and friends, or of wider society, as the bishop of Worcester argues on these pages today. Making their involvement legal will test all those relationships at a time when they are at their most vulnerable.
It would create a new moral landscape. It is also, potentially, open to abuse or, as those with experience of nursing elderly relatives will recognise, to the fear of abuse. Lord Falconer's bill echoes the law in Oregon which has been in force since 1997. Last year, just 0.2% of deaths in the state followed a prescribed lethal dose. This is a benefit for a very few, at the cost of a very big moral change. What is more, it may not even be necessary. In his judgment on the Nicklinson case, Lord Sumption argued that the law is considerably more humane and flexible than many of those who argue for reform appear to recognise.
Too many campaigners dismiss it, but better end-of-life care can help. Reshaping the moral landscape is no alternative to cherishing life and the living.