Falconer’s Bill will be the death knell of care and compassion
Lord David Alton has been a leading opponent of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying/ Euthanasia Bill. Here he outlines some of the reasons why he is determined to prevent this Bill becoming law.
I am opposed to the Bill which has been introduced to legalise these provisions (for assisted dying) and set out my reasons:
Those seeking to change the law are orchestrating a well organised and well-funded campaign to set aside the earlier decisions of Parliament to keep the law as it is – a just law which protects the vulnerable but is also merciful and compassionate.
The House of Lords will make an error if it rushes pell-mell into a law which will lead to Dutch-style euthanasia laws, where it is now lawful to kill the patient without the patient’s consent, or Belgian-style euthanasia laws which include the euthanasia of children.
Lest you doubt the danger of incrementalism, consider the situation in the US State of Washington.
Its Death With Dignity Act Report, 2013, published on 10th June 2014, concludes that the number of deaths through physician-assisted suicide has tripled since the first year of implementation and increased by 43 per cent between 2012 and 2013; and it found that 61 per cent of those who received lethal drugs in 2013 gave as a reason for seeking assisted suicide being a burden on family, friends or caregivers.
When the law was introduced in Washington, the public were assured that it would only apply to terminally ill, mentally competent patients.
Repeatedly, our Parliamentarians have asked whether it is possible to allow euthanasia for a determined few without putting much larger numbers of others at risk – and they have concluded that it is not. When the House of Lords considered an earlier attempt to change the law, a Select Committee inquiry covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively.
There were 15 oral sessions; 48 groups or individuals gave evidence; 88 witnesses gave written evidence; 2,460 questions were asked and the committee received 14,000 letters.
The idea that the issue has not been exhaustively considered is absurd. The House weighed the evidence and said it isn’t safe to change the law.
It is significant that the media frenzy which accompanies this debate never mentions that evidence or the opposition of the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Surgeons and General Practitioners, and the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the British Geriatrics Society, the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations and the Palliative Care movement.
All eloquently set out all the negative outcomes of a change in the law. Ninety five per cent of palliative medicine specialists – the people who care for dying patients day in, day out – are opposed to a change in the law. Are they all uncaring?
The Association of British Neurologists warns that severe depression will lead to cases of assisted dying and that a law which says two doctors can determine such cases will offer few safeguards. Do they have no understanding of either patients or law?
When he gave evidence to the Select Committee, the author of the first Bill to legalise assisted dying, Lord Joffe, very honestly said that he saw his Bill as “the first stage.”
And Baroness Warnock has given us a glimpse of where future stages will take us when she said: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the NHS.”
Suggesting that we have a ‘duty to die’ she said, “I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.”
This turns the argument into a worth based on someone’s economic value rather than on their true human value and their human dignity.
Imagine what will happen in Britain if the proposed laws are implemented. You have a terminal, incurable disease. You have the option of palliative care at £1,000 a week or a glass of barbiturates at £5.
What will happen if we accept Lady Warnock’s proposition that “you’re wasting the resources of the NHS.”
And consider, also, those with a vested interest who will be tempted to put an inheritance before a life. One-in-eight current cases of elder abuse involves financial abuse by relatives. It would inevitably increase if we change the law.
Supporters of the Falconer Bill will seek to disguise the word ‘euthanasia’, opting instead for the less graphic and more cuddly idea of ‘physician-assisted suicide.’ But as one senior retired Law Lord said to me, “that’s playing with words and splitting hairs, it amounts to exactly the same thing.”
Above all, consider the position of disabled people, like those who have organised the Not Dead Yet petition. They believe we have “a hard law with a kind face;” a law which provides protection and safety for vulnerable people; a law which affirms dignity in living as well as dignity in dying.
Baroness Jane Campbell, who launched the petition and has spinal muscular atrophy, and has been a Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, says: “I and many other severely disabled people will not perceive your support for euthanasia as an act of compassion but one founded in fear and prejudice.”
Do we have a better understanding of how disabled people view euthanasia than the organisations which represent them? Do they lack compassion, too?
The introduction of euthanasia will be cloaked in words such as dignity, mercy, compassion and autonomy but the reality will be this: doctors required in future to kill patients; disabled people encouraged to believe they would be better off dead; patient safety compromised; and politicians using the new law as a pretext to withdraw resources from the sick.
The so-called right to die will soon become a duty to die – and to die quickly – and that is why, for reasons of public safety, I oppose this Bill.