It is well meant, but the Assisted Dying Bill will change the way we view the end of life and invite the law and bureaucracy into our deathbed, writes Tiffany Jenkins
NO-ONE can fail to sympathise with the reasons given for the Assisted Dying Bill, proposed by the Labour peer and former lord chancellor Charles Falconer, which has just received its second reading in the House of Lords.
The stories of the suffering witnessed by those speaking in favour of the bill are deeply moving. To want to relieve people of their physical and mental agonies is a very human impulse and many of us would like to help a loved-one exercise a choice if it is well-thought through.
Nor is it possible to prevent anyone from dying in the end, so why not ease their pain and speed the terminally ill on their way?
But whilst sympathetic, I do not support this bill, or any other moves to regulate, in law, assisted dying.
As I am an atheist this is not a position taken with any god in mind, or the church, as critics are often characterised and then dismissed; as if being religious somehow invalidates one’s point of view.
I am uncomfortable with legitimising and formalising in statute the assisted dying of the terminally ill, as this bill proposes to do; specifically those expected to die within six months, because it devalues life, and because doing so will inevitably introduce burdensome regulation to the deathbed.
For those who have very little time left to live, and who want to die with the assistance of families and doctors, they can elect to die. This is safer and more humane than formalising assisted dying which takes things a significant step further.
The new law asks for the endorsement and approval of assisting the death of a person who is terminally ill and it will give certain professionals the power and responsibility to act in this way.
The legal endorsement of assisted dying will influence how we relate to life and death issues. It will turn the taking of a life into a legal right and one that we have signed up to.
We already have that position, effectively, for war, but I do not want to see it extended to everyday life.
I don’t buy some of the scare stories promulgated by some campaigners against the bill: there is not a significant amount of mercenary people who want to speed up the passing of a relative for personal gain, but passing this bill will change the value we accord to the life of those who are dying.
Legalising assisted dying will place pressure on those who are terminal to feel they ought to die sooner, because it suggests that a good death is one that is quick and administered by professionals rather than long and drawn out.
The danger with this bill is that a way to die a good death is legislated for, and that can be controlling and manipulative.
The bill will turn doctors into professionals who have the formal right to take a life rather than carers who should do no harm.
This will change the relationship between patient and medic for the worse, and is one reason why so many medics are opposed.
Doctors also know it is difficult to correctly assess the amount of time that those who are dying actually have left, so you have to ask: how they will make the assessment that the patient, in the words of the bill “is reasonably expected to die within six months”?
Norman Lamb MP says that he backs the bill because “the individual should be the person who decides, not the state” and I have sympathy with this position, but how the individual makes this decision and how it is recognised, needs to be subject to greater questioning.
Many supporters of the bill talk of “appropriate safeguards”, but what are appropriate safeguards and what effect will they have?
In Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, the academic Kevin Yuill warns that “legalising assisted suicide inevitably sets up a tribunal of doctors and lawyers – state representatives – to objectively decide whether our lives are worth living or not”.
Yuill argues that assisted suicide will see private decisions become subject to external arbitration – they will be monitored and checked by appointed authorities – and that this formalisation could be traumatic for all concerned.
That is my fear. The bill, as it has to be because it will be law, is written in legalistic terms, and those terms should ring alarm bells because this is what people will face if they wish to go through with an assisted death.
For example, section 3 (1) (a) of the bill states that the intention to die shall be deemed legitimate if “the person has made and signed a declaration to that effect in the form in the Schedule in the presence of a witness (who must not be a relative or directly involved in the person’s care or treatment) who signed the declaration in the person’s presence; and (b) that declaration has been countersigned in accordance with subsection (3) by – (i) the registered medical practitioner from whom the person has requested assistance to end their life (‘the attending doctor’); and (ii) another registered medical practitioner (‘the independent doctor’) who is not a relative, partner or colleague in the same practice or clinical team, of the attending doctor; neither of whom may also be the witness required under paragraph (a)”.
Reading the bill makes my heart sink. This short extract from one section gives us a flavour of what safeguards will mean in practice – bureaucratic, legal checks will be brought in to regulate difficult, personal decisions.
And it reveals who will really have the power to decide what happens: doctors and lawyers.
Ultimately they will decide if the patient, having written and signed the approved declaration, is competent and capable of making such a decision.
And as we die, this is probably the last thing any of us want: paperwork that needs to be signed off by an appointed authority.
We should not invite the law into our deathbed.