7 January 2012
Campaigners have revived the discussion on assisted suicide, which was given great prominence last summer by Sir Terry Pratchett’s visit to Switzerland to observe a Mr Smedley going through the process and was actually present at his death.
Sir Terry’s dilemma is that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and has no idea how much longer he has in order to satisfy two doctors that he is of sound mind. A recent conference on the issue, chaired by the Former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, concluded that terminally ill patients ‘should have rights to ask their doctor for lethal drugs’. The report went on to say that the right to die should be limited to those who have mental capacity to express their wish.
Having said that, Lord Falconer, admitted that no system was watertight, implying, I suggest, that people with an ulterior motive for wishing someone dead might well be able to take advantage of new legislation on the matter. It is this very legislation which is so difficult to draft, in absolute terms, so as to thwart the ambitions of the dishonest.
Anyone given 12 months or less to live should have the legal right to ask the doctor to help them to kill themselves in as easy and painless manner as possible, the report, published a few days ago by the Commissioner on Assisted Dying, However, the report stopped short of recommending euthanasia of the kind practised by the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. To avoid unnecessary suffering. There should be a right to choose to die but it should be limited to those who have the mental capacity to express a wish to ed their life and had been diagnosed with a terminal illness by two doctors.
Under a string of safeguards, the report proposes a minimum two-week period in which the dying person will be given time to change their mind. Anyone physically unable to take the prescribed deadly drugs would be ruled out to avoid the potential for abuse of the vulnerable by malevolent relatives or friends.
In a follow-up radio programme, Lord Falconer said ‘I don’t think you could ever have a system that is completely watertight. We therefore looked at the current system where there is no check on whether or not you are really terminally ill’. As things stand, you can go to Dignitas without having a second check,
The commission was set up in 2010 amid the growing controversy over the deaths at Dignitas and the erosion of the 50 year-old-law, which sets down a maximum 14 year jail sentence for anyone who’ aids or bets’ the death of another
The new rules set down by the Director of Public Prosecutions, effectively frees people from the threat of criminal charges if they help the suicide of someone who is desperately ill, out of compassion but without thought of their own gain.
Predictably, the right-to-life groups said the report was fixed in favour of calling for legalised assisted suicide. They pointed out that it was financed by author, Sir Terry Pratchett and businessman Bernard Lewis, both prominent backers of assisted suicide. Lord Faulkner, who chose the other 10 members of the commission, himself led an attempt to bring in an assisted dying Bill in the Lord’s three years ago.
The 415 page report states ‘A dying person who met the criteria would be able to ask a doctor to prescribe them a dose of medication that would end their life’
The present report sets out in detail how a system of assisted dying would work. The individual would have to be diagnosed by a doctor as having a terminal illness likely to kill them off within a year. As MND sufferers know this will be an extremely difficult diagnosis to make as we are all different and no one can predict the speed at which a person may deteriorate. However, that is another bridge to cross if anhen the legislation is in place.
A second doctor would have to approve the first doctor’s diagnosis and then both would have to speak to the patient to make sure that the decision to die was firm and not made under pressure from others This two doctors system is similar to the process developed to allow legalised abortion in 1967 and which has been in use as numbers of abortions in England have risen to nearly 200,000 a year. The report recommended that if either doctor was suspicious there are independent assessment should be carried out by a nurse, care worker or a social worker. A doctor should collect the poison from a pharmacist and supervise the death, but the patient, the report said, should take the poison himself, preferably by mouth. The report went on to say that people like me who are disabled and unable to take the poison themselves might be allowed to use an automated syringe machine. In any event, if one was determined to go through with it, I see no difficulty in actually taking the poison. For example it could be sucked out through a straw.
On such a controversial topic, it would be surprising if the report did not have its critics. For example, Richard Hawkes of the disability charity, Scope, said he had ‘little confidence’ in the coalition’s over-simple safeguards’, which he said drew ‘an arbitrary line between people with a terminal illness and people with long-term impairments’. He added ‘in reality the lines between the two can often be blurred, making this distinction unworkable’.
Dr Peter Saunders, of the Care Not Killing campaign group, dismissed the commission as ‘a sham’ adding’ this investigation was unnecessary, biased and lacking in transparency and its report is seriously flawed. Those with differing views, including representatives from the major disability rights organisations and doctors’ groups were not invited to join the commission. Sarah Wootton, of Dignity in Dying said ‘opponents to a change in the law will continue to attack any efforts to find a solution to the unbearable suffering which continues daily, in the absence of a compassionate assisted dying law, but they themselves cannot suggest an alternative.
This report appears to me to be reasonably well-balanced and cognisant of the complexities that such a law will throw up. Nevertheless, looking at the experience of the 10 commission members I have every confidence that something will be put forward for Parliament to discuss, certainly by the next session. If not, towards the end of this present one.
I have quoted freely from The Mail Online, Sunday, January 8 2012, without asking the Editor’s permission. I hope I will be forgiven this discourtesy but this is a hot topic for my readers and carers and I did not wish to waste time pursuing permission,. but, in any event, my sincere gratitude for this succinct summary of the situation on this extremely sensitive issue.For a full discussion on the issue surrounding Sir Terry Pratchett’s visit to Switzerland to Dignitas, see my 15 June entry 2011
Click here for a few jokes about my generation to show that we can take it on the chin without taking offence
Watch the big question bbc1 sunday on i player.Ended with a bit of a bun fight and did not discuss what people are supposed to do when they have not the ability to their life.