MPs will again debate assisted suicide today during a backbench business debate. The debate won’t change the law and there won’t be a vote, but it will provide an opportunity for the key arguments on both sides to be heard.
This is a very sensitive and challenging issue. The stories of intense suffering at the end of life provoke only sympathy and understanding. We fear a bad death and so we look to find ways of controlling the circumstances, so suffering is minimised, and people are empowered to make their own choices. But hard cases make bad laws and MPs need to balance the desires of a minority, with the pressures that would fall on thousands upon thousands of vulnerable people. The current law, which prohibits any form of assisted suicide or euthanasia is the safest way of doing so.
Time after time over the last decade, MPs and Peers have consistently rejected assisted suicide proposals. This is no accident. There are powerful reasons why resisting attempts to change the current law should remain the priority. Legalising assisted suicide would open Pandora’s box and despite all the protestations from the other side, public safety would be put at risk.
But people feel very strongly that we can make a law that is safe, reasonable and allows certain people the option of assisted suicide. Well, the onus is on them to prove it, beyond reasonable doubt. It is no good naively saying that the ‘safeguards’ will work. Where is the proof? This matters intensely because the risks of failure in this regard are exceptionally high and involve people’s lives.
Naturally, some will argue society and its attitudes towards this issue have fundamentally changed. They will point to polling which will show mass public support for a change in the law. But we all know polling can be misleading. Nor are policy makers obliged to follow polling when it comes to policy. That’s not to say the views of the public don’t matter, rather we must handle polling with care. In 2014, polling showed that when people were presented with the five key arguments against legalising assisted suicide, support dropped dramatically to below 50%. The point is that while large sections of the media seem to support a law change, this can lead to an inaccurate assessment of where most people are on this issue.
Since the last vote in 2015, where MPs rejected the Assisted Dying Bill by 330 to 118, the reality is nothing has changed when it comes to the dangers associated with legalising some form of assisted suicide. In fact, the evidence from other jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal overwhelmingly tells us to go in a different direction.
If you look at what has happened in other jurisdictions, incremental expansion follows the introduction of assisted suicide laws. Both in Belgium and the Netherlands, the euthanasia laws have been expanded. In Belgium, euthanasia was legalised in 2002. Then in 2014, the law was amended to include children experiencing constant and unbearable suffering which cannot be eased, and which will cause death in the short term. People have been euthanised in Belgium due to depression, blindness, deafness, gender-identity crisis and anorexia.
In the Netherlands, meanwhile, there has been a steady increase in euthanasia deaths. In 2017, they accounted for four per cent of total Dutch deaths. There is evidence of a worrying trend of so called ‘Romeo and Juliet’ cases where couples are euthanised together.
Even if the examples of Belgium and the Netherlands are dismissed because what is being proposed here is a much narrower law, there is always Washington State, where 56% of those who died under the Death with Dignity Act said they were concerned with being a burden on family, friends or caregivers. In the state of Oregon, in 2018 more than half of those seeking assisted suicide, as a reason for doing so said they didn’t want to be a burden on loved ones. Given the already existing tendency among older people to fear being a burden, the evidence from these States should make us stop and think.
Contrary to the misleading impression given by assisted suicide proponents, in Oregon there is also evidence of expansion, with more medical conditions now considered in the scope of the law when compared with 1998-99. They also recently changed the law so doctors could waive the 15-day waiting period which was included in the original legislation as a safeguard to protect vulnerable and depressed people who might change their minds.
What we need to grasp is that the introduction of assisted suicide would represent a profound and devastating change in society when it comes to how we view the value of life. If we legalise it for those with just six months left, what is to stop us overtime going even further? The classic argument for assisted suicide – that it is up to an individual and it should be their choice to do as they wish – fails to recognise that our choices have consequences.
James Mildred is CARE's communications manager
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