A Peer in the House of Lords has launched another bid to legalise assisted suicide, just weeks after the House rejected a different attempt to weaken the law.
Lord Alderdice has tabled an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is scheduled for a Report Stage debate in the House of Lords on Monday.
During a previous debate on the Bill in July an amendment from Lord Falconer of Thoroton designed to make it legal to help someone travel overseas to commit suicide was voted down by 194 to 141.
Lord Alderdice had previously tabled his amendment at an earlier stage of the Bill, but withdrew it before it could be debated.
Following Lord Falconer’s defeat, Lord Alderdice has re-tabled his amendment, which would create an exception to the offence of assisting suicide so long as the person receiving assistance is ill and has prior certification from a coroner stating that they have a “free and settled wish” to die.
Campaigners opposed to assisted suicide have criticised the wording, pointing out that it applies to anyone suffering a “confirmed, incurable and disabling illness” even if the illness is not terminal.
And while the Falconer amendment applied to overseas travel to jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal, Lord Alderdice’s proposal would permit assisted suicide within the UK.
The involvement of coroners is also controversial, as the amendment would empower them to issue “certification” of a person’s intention to kill themselves.
The full wording of the exception Lord Alderdice wants added to the law is: “Notwithstanding sections 53, 54 and 55, no offence shall have been committed if assistance is given to a person to commit suicide who is suffering from a confirmed, incurable and disabling illness which prevents them from carrying through their own wish to bring their life to a close, if the person has received certification from a coroner who has investigated the circumstances, and satisfied himself that it is indeed the free and settled wish of the person that they bring their life to a close.”
At the time of the debate on Lord Falconer’s amendment, disabled Peer Baroness Campbell of Surbiton spoke out against any weakening of the law.
She said: “Today I and hundreds of other disabled and terminally ill people want you to know, we do not want assisted dying to be legalised for ‘people like us’.”
“We want help to live – not help to die”, she added.
Shortly after the failure of the Falconer amendment assisted suicide campaigner Debbie Purdy won her legal bid to force the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to issue guidance on the application of the law.
The five Law Lords ordered the DPP, Keir Starmer QC, to produce specific guidance on the circumstances in which he would bring charges for assisting suicide.
Mr Starmer issued interim guidance in September, as well as launching a public consultation on the matter which will run until 16 December.
The guidance does not change the law but some critics have expressed concern at its possible implications.
Matt Hampson is a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human.
She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.
“You just don’t know what will happen”
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, palliative care specialist Dr David Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”