Thursday 25 November 2010

Serious questions raised about status and independence of new Commission on ‘Assisted Dying’

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) last week ran a story about a new Commission on ‘Assisted Dying’ that is due to launch officially on Tuesday 30 November in London.

Demos, which is hosting the commission, describes itself on its website as ‘a think-tank focused on power and politics’ and gives the following information about the launch

‘Lord Falconer (pictured), Chair of the Commission, will make a keynote speech setting out the aims of the Commission on Assisted Dying and launching a public call for evidence.

Lord Falconer's speech will be followed by a Q&A chaired by Kitty Ussher, Director of Demos. Attendees will have the opportunity to meet members of the Commission and refreshments will be provided.

The Commission will look at the issue of assisted dying. It will consider what system, if any, should exist to allow people to be assisted to die, and whether any changes in the law should be introduced.

The Commission will run from 30 November 2010 to September 2011, with a report launched in October 2011. The Commission will act entirely independently and will be solely responsible for its conclusions.’

The BMJ reports that the commission will consist of twelve people and says that the other eleven include ‘ethicists, doctors, lawyers, and law enforcement professionals’. Their names will not be announced until the commission is launched.

Lord Falconer told the BMJ that the idea came from Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), which raised the money for the commission from the best selling novelist Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and from businessman Bernard Lewis.

The fact that an ‘independent’ commission on ‘assisted dying’ is to be chaired by a peer who just last year tried to relax the law on assisted suicide, is being funded by a celebrity novelist who is passionately pushing for a change in the law and was dreamt up by a leading campaign group will certainly raise eyebrows.

The Commission has understandably already attracted international media interest along with critical comment.

Both George Pitcher writing in the Daily Telegraph and and John Pring of the Disability News Service writing for the Federation of Disabled People have raised questions about both its status and independence.

Pring quotes Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a leading disabled campaigner against legalising assisted suicide, who said that at this stage – before the full make-up of the commission was known – it ‘does not look in the least independent’.

She added: ‘Demos may make all the claims of independence it likes, but if the commissioners and funders are heavily weighted towards those who support assisted suicide then the manner with which they will look at the evidence will be seen through this prism.’

Baroness Campbell said she was particularly keen to discover whether the commission would involve ‘knowledgeable disabled people with the experience of severe impairment’.

These are all serious questions which require serious answers. One hopes that these answers will be forthcoming next Tuesday amidst the media hype that will almost certainly accompany the launch.


  1. Why is it that you as a christian feel that the law should forbid people from making decisions, just because they are decisions you are opposed to? Even if you wouldn't choose to commit suicide (even in the case of having a debilitating terminal illness), or were you to be a woman you wouldn't have an abortion, why don't you believe other people (who may not share your views) shouldn't have the right to make their own decisions?

    This is something of a tangent, but I'm going to assume that you think homosexual sex is a sin - should that be made illegal as well?

  2. It is not necessary to be a Christian to hold the same views as Peter Saunders. Nor does being a Christian invalidate his views. That suggestion distracts attention from the substance of his views.
    The civil and criminal laws regulate some significant aspects of our behaviour (and not others and consequently our freedom to take decisions. Traffic lights and speed limits come to mind. This can be justified on the grounds of inter alia the common good.

    Assisted dying irreversibly damages a person as a human being - there is no after the event restoration of health or life - death is irreversible. It similarly damages the person who helps the patient to die (especially if that person is a physician for whom the restoration of the patient's health should be paramount), and it damages the community by inter alia facilitating the acceptance of death as an ethical medical intervention. That would continue the cycle of irreversible damage to patients, physicians and Society.

    Consider the following from Herbert Hendin, M.D., "Suicide, Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: Lessons From the Dutch Experience," U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, Oversight Hearing, April 29, 1996. -
    "Over the past two decades," Hendin attested, "the Netherlands has moved from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from euthanasia for the terminally ill to euthanasia for the chronically ill, from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress and from voluntary euthanasia to nonvoluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Once the Dutch accepted assisted suicide it was not possible legally or morally to deny more active medical (assistance to die), i.e. euthanasia, to those who could not effect their own deaths. Nor could they deny assisted suicide or euthanasia to the chronically ill who have longer to suffer than the terminally ill or to those who have psychological pain not associated with physical disease. To do so would be a form of discrimination. Involuntary euthanasia has been justified as necessitated by the need to make decisions for patients not competent to choose for themselves."
    I suggest that this extract points up the harm of Assisted Suicide/Dying better than I can express it. That harm is too proximate to any relaxation of the law to be contemplated.

    A prize winning economist in the US Paul Krugman (New York Times 14 Nov 2010) contributed to the concerns over the US budget deficit and the cost of President Obama’s healthcare reforms with a reference to the need for 'death panels'. Lady Warnock has already asserted that dementia sufferers should consider euthanasia (can dementia sufferers validly take such decisions?). Tom should be more careful in what he argues for.

    Tony Kieran

  3. I wonder why my post to this blog was published, then later disappeared.

    It wasn't abusive or provocative in any way. Nothing exceptional, it seems to me, other than that I tried to make a case for assisted dying. In fact I thought long and hard about what I said, concerned as it was with my own mother's recent death. It's not something I entered into lightly.

    Are Christians so unsure of their ground that they can't face any sort of real questions about their beliefs?

    It's made me feel rather sad.

  4. I'm not sure why it disappeared but some other posters have had similar problems. It was not removed by me. Please try again.

  5. Well, now it's there again (or as much as I can recall of the original).

    I'll check later to see if it sticks.


  6. No. Gone again. Something strange happening, for sure.

    Maybe it's too long - but then why does it appear and a message posted to say it's been published. Looks like a glitch in your blog host.

    I'll try posting in two parts:

  7. Part 1:

    Some two years ago, my mother asked me, her eldest son, to help her end her own life. At the time, she was 91, and I was 60 years old. At the time, she could just about communicate - with great difficulty and very slowly - in writing, and by listening to me with my lips close to her ear as I spoke. She had lost the power of speech after a series of strokes; she was also almost blind (she had lost the sight of one eye some time ago, and it was becoming difficult for her to focus the other eye), partially deaf, as well as suffering severely from arthritis and being almost immobile. Of course she needed, and received, continuing personal care.

    Over the succeeding two years between my mum's first request to me and her recent death, her physical state deteriorated further, although she remained clear of mind and aware of herself. She became completely unable to move herself, unable to communicate by any other means than squeezing my hand as I held it, and - I cut the details short here, you can imagine for yourself.

    I know - she told me - that my mum's life had become unbearable to her. There was no cure for her suffering except death.

    In the end, my mother was sufficiently strong-willed to kill herself by the simple expedient of refusing food. She was not force-fed, nor fed with a tube as some people are; at least I was able to insist on her behalf that she refused such intervention. She died in hospital. But that was not a good way for her to die.

    Now, Peter Saunders and Christian medics, what do you suggest in such cases? I do understand that 'hard cases make bad law', and that individual feelings may be not a good guide to principle on matters of life and death. Nevertheless, I also understand that if my dog were in the state my mother was in, it would be simply morally obligatory for me - let's not talk in euphemism like 'putting down' - to kill the animal as humanely as possible. ... (cont.)

  8. Part 2:

    (cont.) ... It looks in this regard as though we treat our dogs better than we do our parents. (The more so as dogs, we must assume, are not able to reflect cognitively on their own situation and be thereby affected - caused to suffer - on account of such reflection.)

    I'm sure your interventions in the debate about assisted dying are informed by your own deeply held principles. You are, I strongly suspect, not at all a bad person. However, your principles in this regard are not principles that either I or my mother share. It seemed to her, and still seems to me, that the imposition of suffering such as she underwent cannot be justified by an appeal to principles unshared by the sufferer. Do you disagree?

    So what is your suggestion? Palliative care? - That people such as my mother be drugged so as to diminish the intense psychological pain at the loss of all that went to make their life worthwhile in their own eyes? Surely not. But then what?

    Of course my mother would never have wished anyone else to be forced to make the choice she made ... but having made the choice, she could not see why she was prevented - because of beliefs she did not share - from putting that choice into effect.

    So my question to you, in short, is: why should my mother - and, presumably, others like her - have to suffer so badly at the end of her life on account of beliefs she did not share?

  9. Well, it's there again. Seems like it's sticking now, too. The 'too long' hypothesis seems borne out ...

    And, not to let technical matters override what we both consider of genuine importance, I wonder if you have an answer to that question above.

    Thank you.

  10. but having made the mmmbetchoice, she could not see why she was prevented - because of beliefs she did not share - 3mbetfrom putting that choice into effect.

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