Falconer Redux: Oppose the Marris Bill!
by Peter D. Williams
The threat of assisted suicide has cropped up again, this time in the House of Commons. Right-to-lifers now have an opportunity to deal a serious defeat for the assisted death lobby, if the House of Commons decisively rejects their goals.
Every year, the House of Commons holds a ballot for MPs who wish to introduce a Private Members Bill (a change to the law introduced not by the Government, but by an individual MP). This year, the Labour MP Rob Marris won the top of the ballot, and plans to introduce a Bill that that would legalise assisted suicide, essentially as a copy of the law proposed by Lord Falconer in the House of Lords in the last Parliament.
It is worth remembering what the problems were with the Falconer Bill, as the same criticisms will be able to be applied to the Marris Bill also. Lord Falconer’s proposals were based on the system of assisted suicide used in the U.S. state of Oregon.
The Oregon State Public Health Division brings out an Annual Report each year, and in 1998, the year in which the ‘Death with Dignity’ act, legalising assisted suicide in Oregon took effect, it reported that 13% of patients applying for medication to commit suicide did so because they were frightened of being a burden on their families(1). This percentage has substantially increased since, even whilst fluctuating, to the extent that in 2014 almost four times more patients (40%) were opting for assisted suicide for this reason(2). In 2012, only three years ago, this figure had exceeded it, at 57.1%(3).
Meanwhile, in Washington State, which also uses a similar system, the most recent figure for this reason cited by those opting for assisted suicide is 61%(4). All of this illustrates the degree to which a so-called ‘right to die’ (more accurately a right to be killed) can in fact become a duty to die.
Do we really want to live in a society where this is the attitude engendered in the elderly and the terminally ill, or do we want a compassionate society in which people are valued for who and what they are – human beings with inherent dignity, who are always valued – and which consequently invests in good quality palliative care?
The so-called ‘safeguards’ in the Falconer Bill were far too lax to protect from abuse. The requirement it mandated that two Doctors must ascertain that those presenting for assisted suicide truly wished to do so(5), is the same system used in the Abortion Act 1967, which we know is largely abused. This also relies on both Doctors knowing the patient well enough, and their families, to be able to evaluate their intentions, mental capacity, and freedom from duress such as subtle pressure from relations. Given the relationship between most patients and even their GPs, this is incredibly unrealistic.
To add extra rigour, a ‘safeguard’ added to the Bill was that a person presenting for assisted suicide would have to satisfy a judge of the Family Division of the High Court that they had made a “voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to end their life”. This was proposed by Lord Pannick on the grounds that judges of the Family Division already hear cases of medical life or death, do so speedily, and would supposedly add another level of stringency in making sure sufficient ‘safeguards’ were followed.
The version of such a safeguard that was proposed, however, would only have involved a court verifying that the procedures mandated by the Bill itself had been met. Yet as we have seen, it is precisely the procedures themselves that leave vulnerable people open to being pressured into ending their lives due to unscrupulous, or even just exhausted or cost-laden relatives. Involving the courts would thus bring no real added protection to those who could be pressured into suicide.
The Falconer Bill also required the person committing suicide to have mental capacity(6), and to commit the action – pushing a plunger, or pressing a button – that kills them(7). This would exclude the high profile hard cases of this issue (e.g. people suffering from Alzheimer’s and thus lacking mental capacity when they would want to commit suicide, like Sir Terry Pratchett, or paraplegics who cannot commit the physical actions necessary to end their own lives, like Tony Nicklinson), but would endanger the lives of many more vulnerable people.
It is certainly worth remembering that the introduction of assisted suicide is opposed by almost every major medical body, as well as leading palliative care organisations, and campaigning groups for the elderly and disabled: the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the British Medical Association, the World Medical Association, the British Geriatric Society, Scope, the UK Disabled People’s Council, and Not Dead Yet UK.
The debate over the Marris Bill should show that no amount of attempted safeguards are sufficient to avoid the abuse of assisted suicide. The right-to-life movement therefore has a great opportunity to make the pitfalls of such a proposal clear, and also to advocate truly humane reforms that will make assisted living, not assisted death, the concentration of Government.
We can only do this, however, with the help of ordinary right-to-lifers. The Marris Bill will be debated at Second Reading on September 11th, which is a Friday (a day when MPs tend to be back in their constituencies). We need as many people as possible therefore, to contact their Members of Parliament, outlining the problems with assisted suicide and specifically the Falconer/Marris proposals, and asking them to do two things:
- Be in the Palace of Westminster on September 11th, and attend the Commons Marris Bill debate.
- Oppose and vote against the Marris Bill.
If enough Members of the Commons were to do those two things, it would lead to a great victory. Please therefore write to your MP today, and urge them to defend the right to life of vulnerable people.
A version of this post was printed in the Universe Newspaper.
(1) Oregon Public Health Division Death with Dignity Act Report (1998), Table 3: ‘Characteristics of case patients and matched controls’, sub-heading ‘End of Life Concerns’, page 16.
(2) Oregon Public Health Division Death with Dignity Act Report (2014), Table 1: ‘ Characteristics and end‐of‐life care of 857 DWDA patients who have died from ingesting a lethal dose of medication as of February 2, 2015, by year, Oregon, 1998‐2014’, sub-heading ‘End of Life Concerns’, page 5.
(3) Oregon Public Health Division Death with Dignity Act Report (2012), Table 1: ‘Characteristics and end-of-life care of 673 DWDA patients who have died from ingesting a lethal dose of medication as of January 14, 2013, by year, Oregon, 1998-2012’, sub-heading ‘End of Life Concerns’, page 5.
(4) Washington State Department of Health Death with Dignity Act Report (2013), Table 2: ‘End of life concerns of participants of the Death with Dignity Act who have died’, page 7.
(5) Falconer Assisted Dying Bill, sections 3(1)(b), 2, 3, and 4.
(6) Ibid., section 3(3)(b).
(7) Ibid., section 4, sub-sections 4-6.