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No Legal Assisted Suicide

Category Articles
Date January 13, 2012

Don’t blur the frontiers of the law. It works well as it is.

There are two key tests to apply to Lord Falconer of Thoroton’s report: does it present convincing evidence that the law we have now is in need of change? And, if it does, are the safeguards proposed adequate to protect vulnerable people? The evidence is not persuasive on either of these counts.

Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, for example, told Lord Falconer and his ‘commission’ that the law we have ‘works well in practice’. Asked how many cases of assisted suicide crossed his desk, Mr Starmer said there were fewer than 20 a year. This contrasts sharply with Oregon, where the number of assisted suicides has quadrupled since legalisation in 1997. If Oregon’s current “” and rising “” death rate from this source were to be replicated in Britain, we would be looking at between 1,000 and 1,200 a year. Legalisation means normalisation. If assisted suicide is licensed, we cannot expect it to be the rare event it is now.

There are exceptional circumstances where one might understand why someone has broken the law “” a parent who disregarded the speed limit to get a desperately sick child to hospital, a mother who stole to feed her starving children. But no one would seriously suggest we should have laws licensing dangerous driving or theft. We expect those laws to be maintained to protect the public and we look to see exceptional cases treated exceptionally. And that is exactly what happens now in Britain, and in nearly every other country, with assisted suicide.

Those who want to see the law changed tell us their assisted suicide law would come with safeguards. But the group heard evidence that casts serious doubts on the effectiveness of these safeguards. Predicting how long a terminally ill patient has to live is ‘fraught with difficulty’, according to Professor Sir Mike Richards, the National Clinical Director for Cancer and End of Life Care. Relying on one-off assessments to establish mental capacity was dismissed by Dr Matthew Hotopf, a professor of psychiatry, as just ‘a mechanistic safeguard’. A consultant in old-age psychiatry warned that abuse and coercion can easily go undetected. ‘If you want to be devious about it you can be.’

One advocate of assisted suicide suggested the sort of law needed was ‘something that will get through. Let’s get it through first and then maybe . . . you water the safeguards down a bit’. This may not be the position of official campaigning bodies, but they have shifted their agenda in the face of parliamentary opposition.

Laws are like nation states. They are more secure when their boundaries rest on natural frontiers. The law we have rests on the principle that we do not involve ourselves in bringing about other people’s deaths. Once exceptions are introduced, based on arbitrary criteria such as terminal illness or unbearable suffering, those frontiers get blurred. They become no more than lines in the sand, hard to define and easily crossed.

No law is perfect or suits everyone, but the law we have reflects a widely held view that suicide is not something to be encouraged or assisted. It is robust enough to deter malicious assistance and it is applied with sensitivity where there are genuinely compassionate circumstances. It gives us the best of both worlds. We tinker with it at our peril.


Baroness Butler-Sloss is a former president of the Family Division of the High Court of Justice.

Taken from The Times, January 5, 2012.

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