Former Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer (pictured) appeared on the Radio Four Sunday programme this morning. His controversial ‘commission on assisted dying’ will begin to consider the ‘evidence’ it has gathered this coming Wednesday.
Falconer’s commission was set up last November at the instigation of Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society). The commission has said it will take oral and written ‘evidence’ throughout this year on whether assisted suicide should be legalised and produce a report in the autumn.
DID’s hope is that the conclusions, when published, might influence parliament. DID was forced to go down the route of a private commission when its attempts to get a parliamentary committee to look at this issue failed.
There have already been three attempts to legalise assisted suicide in Britain over the last six years but all have been singularly unsuccessful resulting in defeats of 148-100 (Joffe Bill), 194-141 (Falconer amendment) and 85-16 (Macdonald Bill) in 2006, 2009 and 2010 respectively.
Falconer’s commission has already received a lot of bad press on the grounds that it is unnecessary, unbalanced and lacking in transparency.
Of the first eleven expert witnesses originally invited to give evidence (I was one) six declined to do so. Over 50 organisations have subsequently refused to give evidence.
One of these is the British Medical Association which this Tuesday, at its annual representative meeting in Cardiff, will consider a motion dealing directly with the commission. The text is as follows:
* 305 Motion by THE AGENDA COMMITTEE (Motion to be proposed by the YORKSHIRE REGIONAL COUNCIL): That this Meeting:-
i) notes that the significant majority of members of Lord Falconer’s Commission on Assisted Dying are publically in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia;
ii) supports the BMA’s stance in not giving evidence to the DEMOS Commission on Assisted Dying;
iii) questions the stated impartiality and independence of the Commission on Assisted Dying;
iv) requests the BMA Ethics Committee to make the Association’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia clear to the Commission on Assisted Dying;
v) requests the BMJ editorial team to present a balanced and unbiased coverage of the Commission on Assisted Dying.
You can listen to today’s interview on Radio Four Listen Again (33.16-43.40 minutes). The piece begins with the presenter Ed Stourton speaking to George Pitcher, who has subsequently written the story up in a blog titled ‘On radio this morning, Lord Falconer painted himself into a corner on assisted suicide’.
Pitcher made the point on radio that nine of Falconer’s twelve commissioners have publicly supported a change the law to allow assisted suicide and that the remaining three are certainly not against it.
He called the commission ‘utterly bogus’ and a ‘kangaroo court’ and said it was a ‘cunning bit of schoolboy politics’ for Falconer to invite people to give evidence to such a body. If they agreed they would risk giving it a legitimacy it did not deserve. If they didn’t Falconer could simply say that he had made every effort to involve them.
Falconer was then interviewed live. Here is the beginning of the transcript:
Stourton: ‘Lord Falconer… it is as a matter of fact true isn’t it that you come to this with form if you like. The funding for your commission has come from those who are sympathetic to a change in the law so it’s disingenuous to present yourselves as independent and objective’
Falconer: ‘I don’t think it is. I come to it with form in this sense; I proposed an amendment to the law in the Lords… The funding does come from two people who are in favour of a change in the law but I and all of my commissioners have made it absolutely clear that we will approach the matter on the evidence…’
Stourton: ‘It’s just difficult for people to swallow that when the overwhelming majority of you are pro change isn’t it … (chuckles) I mean it doesn’t look very independent does it?’
Falconer: ‘Well come and listen – well I’m afraid you can’t come and listen to our private deliberations which are going to start on Wednesday… We have done an extremely hard working job in having every single interest represented and every single point of view heard’
Stourton: ‘Well. Wouldn’t it be fair to say at least this that you all begin with the presumption that the law needs to change?’
Stourton: ‘Right. You’d be perfectly happy to come out at the end of this process and say that things are perfectly all right as they are?’
Falconer: ‘If that’s where the evidence takes us yes’
So there we have it. Falconer does not deny that the commission is funded by campaigners and stacked full of sympathisers. Yet he claims it will be solely influenced by the evidence. I wonder what a jury might make of that.
It is certainly going to be an interesting debate at the BMA meeting on Tuesday.