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One Year On: The Solid British Political Consensus Against Assisted Suicide

Today, right-to-lifers can celebrate the year anniversary of the defeat of Rob Marris MP’s assisted suicide Bill. The lobby for that practice will attempt to push back, arguing that their aims are popular, necessary, and even inevitable. Yet we can point out that not only the evidence but the arc of recent political history are against them, and increasingly so.

On September the 11th, 2015, the UK House of Commons had its first vote on the issue of assisted suicide since Joe Ashton’s ‘Doctor Assisted Dying’ Bill in 1997. As the No To Assisted Suicide campaign has noted:

“On that day the UK House of Commons had its first vote on the issue of assisted suicide since Joe Ashton’s ‘Doctor Assisted Dying’ Bill in 1997. The Ashton Bill was defeated at Second Reading by 234 votes to 89, a majority of 145 votes. When the House voted on the Marris Bill, it rejected assisted suicide by 330 votes to 118, a majority of 212 votes. Not only was the Marris Bill defeated by a numerically larger majority, it was defeated by a bigger proportion of the MPs who turned up to vote”.

Between these two Commons debates, the House of Lords had seen six attempts to introduce an assisted suicide bill or amendment: three from Lord Joffe, and three from Lord Falconer of Thoroton. Most of these ran out of time before they could make progress through the Lords, but of the two of these that came down to a decisive vote, both were convincingly rejected. The third Joffe Bill was rejected by 148-100 (a 48 vote majority) in May 2006, and the Falconer amendment to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was defeated by 194 to 141 (a 53 vote majority) in 2009.

In the rest of Great Britain, and the British Isles, assisted suicide has also been decidedly defeated. Since the Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999, it has seen two attempts to introduce assisted suicide by the late Margo MacDonald MSP (latterly taken forward for her by Green MSP Patrick Harvie). In the first vote in 2010, it lost by 85 votes to 16, and in the last vote it was defeated by 82 to 36. Both heavy majorities against the practice.

Elsewhere, in the Welsh Senedd, a proposal on the principle of assisted suicide (the Assembly has not the power to legislate on that topic) was defeated after just 12 Assembly Members (AMs) supported it. By contrast, 21 AMs – almost twice the number in favour – voted against it, whilst 20 abstained.

Finally, the House of Keys, the lower house of the Manx Tynwald (Parliament) rejected assisted suicide in 2015, when it declined to even allow the introduction of an assisted suicide Bill, by 17-5. This was associated with the outcry from health professionals. The last attempt to legalise euthanasia there was in 2003, when Rushen MHK (Member of the House of Keys) John Rimington was granted leave to introduce a private member’s bill. A select committee investigation followed, and its report received by the Keys in February 2006 contained no recommendations. No Bill was subsequently introduced.

For the last twenty years then, not only the UK Parliament, but the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd, and Manx Tynwald have consistently looked at the evidence and voted against legalising assisted suicide. Not only that, but in many cases – most notably the House of Commons – this stance has only hardened over time.

This is because, despite the claims from assisted suicide lobbyists that they are on the side of public opinion, Members of Parliament are more often than not very much aware that Parliamentary democracy must protect the nation as a whole, and not just serve the notional opinion of the majority. When they see the overwhelming evidence that to legislate may possibly alleviate the desperate fears of a small number, but put thousands of others at risk, they more often than not discern that it is a potentially profoundly harmful idea.

When the Marris Bill was debated, MPs were faced with the opposing voices to the Bill of leading voices in the disability rights community, such as the late Kevin Fitzpatrick, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, and the actress and activist Liz Carr. These were joined by the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Surgeons, and General Practitioners, the British Medical Association (which has recently voted to maintain its opposition to assisted suicide), the Association of Palliative Medicine, and many others.

Of course, the consistently defeated assisted suicide lobby will argue that they have seen victories further afield, such as in California or Canada. Yet the undemocratic way these victories have taken place serves as a crucial contrast to the debates that have taken place in the British Isles. ‘SB-128’ passed the Californian Assembly and Senate, but only through a process of legislative jiggery-pokery that was widely condemned, even by its supporters. Meanwhile, ‘C-14’ was only introduced by the Canadian Government because their Supreme Court shamefully struck down the right-to-life protections in their Criminal Code in an act of ludicrous and revolting judicial activism.

The consistent pattern is that when legislators, and also the general public, debate and consider the issue of assisted suicide, they come to the conclusion that it is a pernicious practice that would undermine the welfare of the vulnerable.

On this anniversary, we must not rest on our past victories, but encouraged by them we must channel our energies into supporting the vulnerable, and helping the terminally ill to have as good a death as possible. That means more hospice care, effective social care support and greater understanding of older and disabled people’s needs at end of life. If we do, people will not be forced in hopeless desperation to seek suicide, but will instead be able to trust that in their most difficult moments they will receive the compassionate care that they truly need.