There is no legal basis for normalising suicide
Should Parliament legalise assisted suicide? Rob Marris, whose Assisted Dying Bill has its Second Reading debate in the House of Commons, believes we should.
It is important to understand what is being proposed: that doctors should be licensed to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill people so they can use them to take their own lives. Many doctors do not want to do this. A recent survey of GPs revealed that only one in seven would be willing to consider a request for assisted suicide.
This is a major change to the criminal law and to the “do no harm” principle that underpins medical ethics and practice. If Parliament is to go down that road, it needs convincing evidence that there is something seriously amiss with the law as it stands. I have seen no such evidence.
We have laws to criminalise acts that are not acceptable to us. One such act is encouraging or assisting someone to commit suicide. Society’s view of suicide is consistent and clear. Individuals who attempt to end their own lives should be treated with compassion and understanding and given help; but suicide itself is not something to be encouraged, much less assisted. This is why we have prevention strategies and suicide watches. Licensing assistance with suicide in certain circumstances flies in the face of such values, undermining them.
Laws are more than just regulatory instruments. They convey important ethical messages. When something is legalised by Parliament, it helps it acquire a stamp of social approval. An “assisted dying” law sends the message that, if you are terminally ill, taking your own life is something for you to consider and something that can be legitimately encouraged.
We can all think of exceptional circumstances where helping someone to end their life might not be morally reprehensible. But the law already has the discretion to deal with such cases sensitively and to ensure that charges are not brought where it is clear that there is no public interest in doing so. This is underpinned by guidelines to ensure consistency.
Under the present law, assisting suicide is rare. Fewer than 20 cases a year cross the desk of the Director of Public Prosecutions. If we had an assisted suicide law like Oregon’s – the model for Mr Marris’s Bill – then the evidence based on our different population sizes is that we will be looking at around 1,500 cases every year. And Oregon’s death rate from legalised assisted suicide is still rising. Enabling laws tend to encourage and promote the acts they enable.
There is also every reason to be concerned that the boundaries of an “assisted dying” law will not remain intact. The criteria proposed are entirely arbitrary. They do not rest on any rational logic, and for that reason they invite pressure to extend them.
We are already seeing the first attempts to relax the terms of Oregon’s law – to extend the six-months-to-live limit to 12-months-to-live. It’s hardly surprising. Criteria such as “terminal illness” and “six months to live” are arbitrary and uncertain. If compassion demands that we legalise assisted suicide for people who are expected to die shortly of natural causes, on what grounds can it be resisted for others who have longer-lasting conditions, such as MS or Parkinson’s, which they may have to cope with for many years?
By contrast, the law that we have now rests on the rational and widely-accepted principle that we do not involve ourselves in bringing about the deaths of other people. Once we start making exceptions based on loose criteria such as “terminal illness”, then the boundary becomes just a line in the sand, easily crossed and hard to hold. It will also be exploited by the ruthless who see personal advantage in the death of a relative or person over whom they have influence.
The present law and its application like all human constructs cannot be perfect. No law can be. But it fulfils the role that was intended for it – it deters malicious assistance with suicide while showing understanding and clemency in compassionate cases. It exists, not to give options and choices to some, but to provide protection for all, especially the most vulnerable. We tinker with it at our peril.
Dominic Grieve QC is MP for Beaconsfield and the former Conservative Attorney General