The law on assisted suicide is to be “simplified and modernised” as part of the Government’s legislative plans for the coming year.
Assisted suicide is currently illegal, but there have been a number of recent calls for the law to be watered down.
Pro-life groups have warned that the Bill could be used by the euthanasia lobby to see the law weakened.
Critics of assisted suicide say it is creeping euthanasia and will put pressure on the frightened, the depressed and the confused to end their lives prematurely.
Justice minister Maria Eagle indicated last month that the issue would be given parliamentary time at some point, but was not clear when. She termed the current law “highly unusual”.
Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech made reference to a new Coroners and Justice Bill, which the Government says will include “Simplifying and modernising the offence of assisting suicide”.
The Bill does not apply in Scotland, but MSP Margo MacDonald has also said she will attempt to change the law there.
The issue was brought to the fore earlier this month with the court case of Debbie Purdy, who has Multiple Sclerosis and who claimed that the law was not ‘clear’ on assisted suicide.
She wanted a guarantee from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that her husband would not be prosecuted if he helped her travel to a Swiss suicide clinic to end her life.
But the DPP, Sir Ken MacDonald QC, said he didn’t have the authority to decide either way, and judges ruled that the issue was one for Parliament to decide.
“The danger always is that vulnerable people are encouraged to do something they would otherwise not do,” Sir Ken cautioned.
“A duty to die”
Baroness Warnock prompted a storm of criticism when she suggested in September that elderly people with dementia have a duty to die.
But Neil Hunt of the Alzheimer’s Society described Baroness Warnock’s comments as “nothing short of barbaric”.
During a debate on euthanasia in November, Lord Carlile of Berriew said her suggestion showed that the “slippery slope is no fiction: it is already well polished”.
Lord Carlile has also warned that the introduction of assisted suicide for the few who demand it could put the majority at risk.
The real concern, he said, is “public safety – the potential for collateral harm to the great majority of terminally ill people from giving a few individuals a ‘right’ to prescription suicide pills”.
This view was echoed by Paddy Masefield, Patron of the Coalition of Disabled People, who said assisted suicide would “leave us all culpable for even greater losses that may prove much harder to live with than the experience of disability itself”.
“by the back door”
Dignity in Dying, formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, has already been pushing for the “right to have an assisted death” to be included in separate Government plans to improve the provision of end-of-life care.
One Peer, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, said: “Palliative and other end-of-life care is being used like bubble-wrap around a sharp and dangerous object in an attempt to [bring in] assisted suicide by the back door.”
End-of-life care experts such as Dr David Jeffrey say that high quality care is the answer to suffering for the terminally ill, but warn that introducing assisted suicide will endanger the vulnerable.
“My concern is with people who are frightened, possibly depressed and bit confused,” he said earlier this year.
“These are people who don’t know where to turn and who feel they are a burden. The law has to protect them.”
According to Dr Jeffrey, depression is a common cause of “suicidal wishes”, and is often treatable.
Yet in the US state of Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, none of the patients who requested to end their lives in 2007 were referred for psychiatric assessment.
Commenting on the death of 23-year-old Daniel James, who decided to end his life at the Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas after a rugby training accident left him paralysed, Dr Peter Saunders of the Care Not Killing alliance said there were “real questions about whether he was clinically depressed”.
He added: “I think it is a tragedy that he wasn’t managed properly.”
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, Dr 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.”
“”A different life”
The Times recently reported the story of Matt Hampson, 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”.