Thursday 11 February 2010

DPP guidelines due out soon - will they just be a licence for legalisation of assisted suicide by stealth?

Attempts in the House of Lords both in 2006 (Joffe) and 2009 (Falconer) failed to legalise assisted suicide in this country. The medical profession (BMA and Royal Colleges), faith groups and disability groups also remain firmly opposed to a change in the law.

However we are now seeing fresh attempts to change the law in Scotland with Margo MacDonald’s End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill and we expect new attempts from Westminster after the election in May.

The greater immediate danger however is legalisation by stealth through the legal system.

The pro-euthanasia lobby have tried to make a case for ‘clarification’ of the law through the Debbie Purdy case. This led to a Supreme Court Judgement last summer requiring the Director of Public Prosecutions to produce prosecution guidance for assisted suicide. His draft guidance was published on 23 September 2009 and a consultation on it closed on 16 December. The definitive guidance is due any day now.

This guidance is expected to make it less likely that assisters who are ‘motivated wholly by compassion’ or are ‘loved ones’ will be prosecuted. In addition it is less likely that cases involving ‘victims’ who are terminally or chronically ill or disabled will end up in court.

If so the result will be that some of Britain's most vulnerable people will have less legal protection than others and that it will be easier for family members and 'friends' with an interest in a person's death to get away with subtle coercion to assisted suicide on the basis that they were acting compassionately.

The whole process could very easily lead to euthanasia by stealth. The general pattern we are now beginning to see (most clearly evidenced in the cases that have gone to the Dignitas clinic) involves police not investigating, the CPS not prosecuting, juries delivering perverse verdicts and judges giving light sentences.

All this has been fuelled by a toxic cocktail of emotive hard cases, media hype, celebrity endorsement and ill-informed public opinion.

This is exactly the same pattern that we hve seen in the Netherlands over the last 30years with judges initially either not prosecuting or bringing light sentences (eg the Postma case), a set of guidelines which if followed meant doctors could effectively escape prosecution, and a later law change giving statutory force to this earlier legal sanction.

The rates of assisted suicide and euthanasia (both voluntary and involuntary) were thereby already high in the Netherlands long before the law was eventually changed.

There is a real danger that we will see exactly the same process operating in the UK.

Friday 5 February 2010

Dog bloggers, MPs expenses, abandoned wheelchairs and an Old Testament prophet

The Cambridgeshire police recently failed to respond to a 999 call about a teenager who was being beaten up with a baseball bat – allegedly because they were short-staffed. But they could still afford to maintain a German Shepherd puppy called Lukas who writes a blog.

Judge Sean Enright said the police response ‘smacked of indifference’. And Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, commented that: ‘Policing isn’t about PR and fancy websites. It’s about keeping people safe and reassuring the public that crime is being dealt with firmly and strongly.’

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, commenting on the four MPs today charged with theft over parliamentary expenses said he was ‘very angry about what has happened…These are very serious criminal allegations. All criminal allegations have got to be investigated. It’s a matter now for the courts.’

Two views on policing and the courts with which I concur: police are there to ensure public safety and reassure the public that crime is being dealt with firmly and strongly; and the courts are there to investigate all serious criminal investigations.

And yet when it comes to the serious crime of assisting with suicide it seems that the police and the courts have a different view. There have been 134 cases of people now taking ‘loved ones’ to the Dignitas facility in Switzerland to end their lives. Virtually all have been ‘assisted’ but only around ten cases have been investigated and in only two was there apparently enough evidence to bring a prosecution. But in both of the latter no prosecution was brought because it was felt ‘not to be in the public interest’.

The draft DPP prosecution guidelines (soon to be finalised) tell us why. They stipulate that if the ‘victim’ of assisted suicide is terminally or chronically ill or disabled or if the ‘assister’ is a spouse or close relative acting ‘compassionately’ then prosecution is unlikely.

And yet the vast majority of terminally and chronically ill or disabled people do not want to die – instead they want good care and help to live as independently as possible. Furthermore their rates of suicide are not significantly higher than those of the general population. So why should we remove legal protection from them and not others? And why should we exempt ‘loved ones’ from investigation ahead of time when in fact many cases of financial, emotional and physical abuse of elderly and disabled people happen in the context of so-called ‘loving families’. That seems both discriminatory and na├»ve.

I suspect it has something to do with the value our society gives to vulnerable people and the fact that we live in an increasingly materialistic culture where assisted suicide is seen simply, as Terry Pratchett has demonstrated this week, as just another celebrity endorsed life-style choice.

I was struck today by the story of the disabled fundraiser who was abandoned by ‘friends’ for three hours in his wheelchair on an exposed plateau on Mt Snowdon. He was eventually saved when rescue workers reached him and brought him down. Presumably he had become an encumbrance in their attempt to reach the summit.

The danger of changing the law to allow assisted suicide for vulnerable people is simply that we then will more easily view them as encumbrances holding us back from reaching our financial and life-style goals; and may therefore try less hard to persuade them that they are not a ‘burden’ and that their lives are genuinely worth living – making it in turn more likely that they will ‘choose' the decent thing.

The prophet Ezekiel condemned those in Jerusalem for being ‘arrogant, overfed and unconcerned’ and thereby distracted from attending to the needs of others. Like the Cambridge police and their blogging dog; or the ambitious climbers pushing for the summit. I wonder what he might have said about us today?