Commission on Assisted Dying: put this terrible proposal out of its misery

The Government should see the ‘Commission on Assisted Dying’ as a relic of political debates that belong to the past, and afford its proposals the quiet burial they deserve

Lord Falconer has tried once again to get the concept of assisted dying on the table
Peter Smith
On 17 January 2012 13:55

Charles, Lord Falconer, a Labour peer, one of Her Majesty’s Counsel and bearer of numerous post-nominal letters, has recently published the final report by the Commission on Assisted Dying which he chaired.

You may remember multi-millionaire Charlie ‘fatty’ Falconer as Tony Blair’s former flat mate (they even shared a girlfriend) whose friendship was rewarded with the position of solicitor-general in 1997.

Like any good socialist, Charlie put his four children through public schools in London; he was surprised when the local party in Dudley East thought this didn’t quite represent their own views on private education and rebuffed his advances.

You also might remember him as the man in charge of the Millennium Dome who spent over a year fending off calls for his resignation after the ‘success’ of this massive white elephant.

He was even the Ministerial lead on the Freedom of Information Act, which Blair reflected on thus in his autobiography: ‘You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it’. Pretty damning from the man who took us into Iraq.

Now, not content with the fortunes to be made as London head of litigation for a major US law firm, Lord Falconer has once again licked his stubby middle finger and put it up into the winds of British popular opinion – and yet again he’s making a right pig’s ear of it.

His apparently ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ Commission was funded by pro-euthanasia campaigner Sir Terry Pratchett. Nine of its 11 members (all appointed by Falconer himself) had already expressed views in favour of assisted dying. Lord Falconer has form on end-of-life issues too, having introduced an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill in 2009 that was heavily defeated in the House of Lords.

Lo and behold, after 15 months of deliberation the ‘impartial’ Commission concluded that there is a ‘strong case’ for allowing family and friends of the terminally ill to assist in their death.

What a surprise.

There is not the space to rehearse the Commission’s arguments here (many of which are themselves summaries of the detailed work done by the House of Lords Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Committee in 2005).

It suffices to say instead that there are many good considerations of the competing substantive arguments against the Commission’s proposals, which are worth reading in full. They centre on the true nature of the autonomy and human dignity of the terminally-ill person, and their real needs of superior palliative care with uniform coverage across the UK.

The conflicting roles of families and medical professionals have to be taken into account too when considering the wider social implications of any loosening of the law. And no safeguards will ever prevent depressed people, children and those whose illnesses are not the proximate and imminent cause of their deaths, from choosing to die, even against the wishes of their families, friends and carers.

Instead, the Government should reject the Commission’s findings out of hand: the Commission’s operation was fundamentally flawed, as its loaded panel of Commissioners suggests, and it is a rehash of proposals that have very recently been rejected by Parliament.

For instance, the Commission considered the current ban on assisted suicide to be discriminatory against disabled people, as since 1961 suicide has been lawful by able-bodied people and the disabled apparently couldn’t kill themselves without help. But most major disability groups refused to attend the Commission’s hearings, on the grounds that the Commissioners had already made up their minds.

In fact, more than 86 experts and expert organisations declined to submit evidence for similar reasons, despite being invited to do so. This long list included prestigious interest groups like Age UK, the British Medical Association, the BMA’s ethics committee, Disability Alliance, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Mind, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the Multiple Sclerosis Trust, the Parkinson’s Disease Society, the Patients Association, and many of the medical Royal Colleges.

Anyway, as the BMA pointed out, the majority of doctors do not want the legalisation of assisted dying as it radically changes the doctor-patient relationship, by permitting a clique of medics to kill actively the most vulnerable and infirm in contravention of the Hippocratic Oath.

Furthermore, the Commission should be seen in the context of recent debates on the voluntary ending of life. Lord Falconer’s last attempts at legalising assisted suicide, and its more malevolent big brother, euthanasia, foundered in 2009. At least four previous attempts, all introduced by Falconer’s sidekick Lord Joffe, have been defeated in Parliament in the past ten years. Margo MacDonald’s similar efforts in the Scottish Parliament were rejected 85 votes to 16 in December 2010.

(It is surely notable that the aging members of the House of Lords – who are more likely to develop the sorts of terminal illnesses prompting a desire to die – have resolutely voted against them all. Perhaps they fear too much that they’ll be bumped off by unscrupulous relations, keen to get their hands on the family title and estate.)

The Oxford English Dictionary variously defines, among other meanings, the word ‘commission’ as ‘a group of people entrusted by a government or other official body with authority to do something’ and ‘the action of committing a crime or offence’. It appears that the travesty of the Falconer Commission is closer to the latter than the former, and its proposals should be quietly disposed of. 

Peter Smith was formerly research assistant to Edward Leigh MP and now works as a lawyer in London

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