Analysing the Falconer Bill

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill has its second day of Committee Stage in the House of Lords on Friday 16 January. It seeks to legalise assisted suicide (but not euthanasia) for mentally competent adults (aged over 18) with less than six months to live, subject to ‘safeguards’ under a two doctors’ signature model similar to the Abortion Act 1967. 

Opponents to the Bill had tactical choices: either to try to kill the bill dead at second reading on 18 July – as they did with a similar bill from Lord Joffe in 2006 – or to strangle it slowly in committee by amending it, if necessary with ‘wrecking’ devices. They have opted for the latter, which means clear arguments against will form part of the official record of the debate. This will effectively stop Falconer complaining that ‘we have not yet had the debate’. Peers will instead literally do it to death.

And so the House of Lords are now debating the bill line by line and considering amendments. Over175 amendments to the bill have been tabled and collated into over 40 groups. Only four of these groups were considered on the first day of committee (7 November) so there is still a long way to go (you can read last that debate here). There have even been extra amendments laid for pure comedy value!

House of Lords protocol requires that each proposed amendment has to receive the offer of debating time so given that there are only three more possible committee days this year to consider it, and none of these days have yet been allocated to it by the government whips, the bill is fast running out of time.

It may not even reach the report and third reading stages necessary for it to clear the House of Lords. And even if it does those on both sides agree that there is no time for it to go through the House of Commons before the general election on 7 May 2015.

This means almost inevitably that the bill will fall and that Lord Falconer will have to start all over again next summer – which he no doubt will do.

The debate now however is still very important as it will form part of the parliamentary record and will influence future discussions.

One development on 7 November was the ‘acceptance’ of an amendment that judges, not doctors, should take final decisions about whether someone should be given the go-ahead to take their own life. Or at least that is how it was spun by the media. In fact, Lord Pannick (a strong supporter of Falconer), who moved the amendment, was reminded by other peers of the convention not to vote on amendments before report stage, but he pushed it to a vote regardless at a time when his supporters (many of whom left soon afterwards) were present in good numbers.

Those opposed to him then simply sat on their hands and abstained meaning that a formal division was not called for. So in effect the ‘acceptance’ means very little.  No amendment stands anyway if the bill falls at third reading and more can be moved at report stage before that.

Lords Pannick’s amendment puts a fearsome onus on judges but also demonstrates one of the weaknesses of Falconer’s bill – the fact that someone on his own side felt moved to tighten his ‘safeguards’ further is further evidence that they are not safe. A fuller analysis of the bill and a paper giving warnings from Oregon where similar legislation was passed are both available on the Care Not Killing website.

These concerns about safety are further confirmed by a new Comres poll which showed that a clear majority of public says there is no safe system of assisted suicide and that more than four in ten believe assisted suicide will be extended beyond the terminally ill if the current law is changed.

Andrew Hawkins, Chairman of ComRes, has commented:

'The obvious conclusion is that while the public are broadly sympathetic to the rights-based argument in favour of ending lives at the time of a person's choice, there is widespread concern about the abuse to which any system is likely to be open. These concerns are apparent across three areas - by the medical profession... by unscrupulous relatives, and in terms of pressure to end lives prematurely and on diminishing palliative and other health care resources.'

This latest series of events has all the hallmarks of a phoney war. Regardless, Falconer and his allies will undoubtedly not let the matter rest. The first shots have indeed been fired but this battle will run and run. 

We don’t need this bill.

Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide will place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others. This will especially affect people who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed. The right to die can so easily become the duty to die.

The law we have at present does not need changing. The stiff penalties it holds in reserve provide an effective bulwark against exploitation and abuse, but in so doing it still allows judges to act with mercy in hard cases. It also protects vulnerable relatives from being subtly coerced into assisting a suicide against their better judgement.

The pressure people will feel to end their lives if assisted suicide is legalised will be greatly accentuated at this time of economic recession with families and health budgets under pressure. Elder abuse and neglect by families, carers and institutions are real and dangerous and this is why strong laws are necessary. Where there is a will, there is an anxious relative.

Furthermore experience in other jurisdictions, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and the US American states of Oregon and Washington, shows that any change in the law will lead to ‘incremental extension’ and ‘mission creep’ as some doctors will actively extend the categories of those to be included (from mentally competent to incompetent, from terminal to chronic illness, from adults to children, from assisted suicide to euthanasia). This process will be almost impossible to police.

Peter Saunders is Chief Executive of Christian Medical Fellowship and Campaign Director of the Care Not Killing Alliance

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