just announced that he is about to introduce a new bill into the House of Lords to legalise assisted suicide along the lines of the Oregon model – assisted suicide for mentally competent adults who have less than six months to live.
Members of the House of Lords should note that statistics released just last month (full report here) show that the number of assisted suicide prescriptions and deaths in Oregon, once again, increased in 2012 and has now reached an all-time high.
Falconer’s bill, however, only requires a twelve month life expectancy and so is thereby even more liberal than Oregon’s.
There were 59 assisted suicide deaths in Oregon in 2009, 65 in 2010, 71 in 2011 and 77 in 2012; a 30% increase overall in just four years.
The number of prescriptions for assisted suicide was 95 in 2009, 97 in 2010, 114 in 2011 and 115 in 2012; 115 in 2012; a 21% increase since 2009.
Overall assisted suicides have gone from 16 in 1998 to 77 in 2012, an overall increase of 381% (see chart above).
This pattern of incremental extension is similar to that seen in the Netherlands and Switzerland, other countries that have changed the law.
A major factor fuelling this increase is suicide contagion - the so-called Werther effect. This is particularly dangerous when assisted suicides are backed by celebrities as they are here and given high media profile as they are frequently by the BBC.
The Oregon numbers may not seem large but we need to remember that Oregon has a very small population relative to the UK and that they may well be an underestimate as they are based on physicians' self-reporting.
But for argument's sake let's simply take them at face value. How would they then translate to Britain?
Back in 2006, and based on Oregon’s total of 38 assisted suicide deaths in 2005, the House of Lords calculated that with an Oregon-type law we would have about 650 cases of assisted suicide a year in Britain.
But as the numbers in Oregon have since doubled to 77 the UK equivalent would now be 1,300. With Falconer’s more liberal interpretation of what constitutes ‘terminally ill’ the numbers here would be expected to be higher still.
Currently assisted suicide is illegal here and we see only 15-20 Britons going to Dignitas in Switzerland to die each year.
We should learn from the Oregon experience and be resisting these moves.
Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide (a form of euthanasia) would inevitably place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives so as not to be a burden on others and these pressures would be particularly acutely felt at a time of economic recession when many families are struggling to make ends meet and health budgets are being slashed.
And once legalised there will inevitably be incremental extension as we have seen in Oregon, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Legalisation leads to normalisation.
Currently only two US states, Oregon and Washington, have legalised assisted suicide, each on the basis of a referendum.
By contrast whenever a bill has been brought before a US state parliament it has been defeated. This has happened over 120 times in the last 20 years.
Thirty-four states prohibit assisted suicide outright. Massachusetts and six other states have banned it through legal precedent.
It is often argued by the pro-euthanasia lobby that opposition to the legalisation of assisted suicide is largely faith-based. But this is not true.
In Massachusetts, a left leaning Democrat state which rejected assisted suicide in a referendum last year, the opposition of doctors and disabled people has been very significant indeed.
This is because one of the most powerful arguments against it is public safety – any change in the law will put pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives and no law can be adequately safeguarded against abuse.
I have previously blogged about the shroud of secrecy which surrounds assisted suicide practice in Oregon, the worrying trends in neighbouring Washington state, which enacted a similar law more recently and the way the Oregon law steers people toward suicide.
Also deeply concerning are reports of depressed patients being killed without being treated, doctor shopping, deaths taking place without witnesses present (raising questions about elder abuse) and the fact that 44 of the 77 who died last year (57%) said that they were concerned about being a burden on family, friends and caregivers.
The lessons are clear. Let’s not go there.