Monday 10 August 2015

Britain's law on assisted suicide is not 'broken' and does not need ‘fixing’

On Friday 11 September MPs will vote on the Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill tabled by Labour’s Rob Marris. In case you were wondering, it’s called ‘No 2’ because an almost identical Assisted Dying Bill has been tabled in the House of Lords by Labour Peer Lord Falconer.

Marris wants to change the law to allow mentally competent adults with less than six months to live to obtain help to kill themselves with lethal drugs.

Over the next month hundreds of thousands of pounds will be spent by the campaign group Dignity in Dying (the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society), who drafted the bill, aided and abetted by its principle cheerleader, the BBC, who can be guaranteed to give it the full oxygen of publicity and to grant an international platform to anyone who supports it.

Expect to see more celebrities coming out to back what they perceive to be a popular cause, more opinion polls telling us that most people want to see a change in the law and more cynically timed cases of people having to journey to Switzerland to end their lives at the Dignitas facility because there is no similar opportunity here.

Expect also to see other campaign groups with more radical agendas entering the fray in an attempt to see the bill’s provisions extended to a far wider group of people.

The presence of determined and well-funded groups like the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS), The British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and Exit International assures us that any change in the law to allow assisted suicide for anyone at all will be followed by a continuing clamour to broaden its provisions even more. It Marris’s law passes it will be only the beginning.

One of the major arguments put by all of these campaigners is that our current law is broken and needs fixing. In fact Dignity in Dying plans to plaster up ‘Fix our broken assisted dying law’ posters all over London throughout the summer. 

Leading politicians across all major parties have already signalled their opposition to a change in the law. They include SNP leaders Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, Labour leadership candidates Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corban, past and present Liberal Democrat leaders Nick Clegg and Tim Farron and most of the Tory government’s cabinet, including Prime Minister David Cameron himself.

But even Cameron, who has been consistent and resolute in his opposition, seems to weakening under the pressure to concede that the current law is not fully fit for purpose. In an answer to a recent parliamentary question he suggested that although he did not support Marris’s and Falconer’s proposals, he conceded that there were ‘imperfections and problems with the current law’.  

But is our law broken? What is the actual evidence for this claim? I am struggling to find any at all.

Dignity in Dying are working hard to convince us that there is a huge demand for assisted suicide and that thousands of well-meaning and compassionate relatives risk prosecution under the current law for ‘helping’ their loved ones because the law is not clear enough about whether they will be prosecuted or not.  

But in fact none of this is actually true.

Under the current law, the Suicide Act 1961, it is not against the law to commit, or to attempt to commit, suicide.

On the other hand, ‘encouraging or assisting a suicide’ is a crime carrying a discretionary sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment.

The law carries this blanket prohibition of helping people kill themselves in order to protect vulnerable people from exploitation and abuse. Any change will remove legal protection from those who are elderly, disabled, or suffering from physical or mental illness.

It will thereby encourage those who stand to gain financially or emotionally from their deaths, either to coerce them or subtly suggest that they take this course, or at very least not to stand in their way. Yes the law provides a very strong deterrent.

The reason the law makes no exceptions is because laws are best defended when they hold to strong consistent principles and don’t try to make exceptions for individuals with arguably extenuating circumstances. Imagine a speeding law that was accompanied by a list of excusable reasons for going above 30 mph in a built up area ahead of the event. It would be utterly unworkable.

Managing exceptions is far better left to the police, the crown prosecution service and the courts.

This is not a legal fudge but one of the foundations of the British Justice system.

The handling of an individual hard case is dealt with, not by a piece of paper, but after careful consideration by professionals who know the law, but are able to apply it in any given case with discretion and kindness, to temper justice with mercy.

When a case of alleged assisted suicide is brought to attention it is first investigated by the police who submit their finding after a careful examination of the facts to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) which must then make a decision about whether to prosecute.

In weighing this decision the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) must decide whether there is enough evidence to bring a case (there often is not) and whether it is in the public interest to do so. 

Only if the answer to both these questions is yes does it proceed to court. And in the extremely rare event of a conviction resulting, the judge is also given discretion to make the punishment fit the crime. 

Fourteen years is an absolute maximum sentence which is virtually never given. Those who are convicted and sentenced generally go to prison for far less or do not receive a custodial sentence at all.

So how is this law actually working? According to the CPS’s latest figures 1 April 2009 up to 24 April 2015, there have been only 110 cases referred to the CPS by the police that have been recorded as assisted suicide. This is less than 20 per year or under two every month.

Of these 110 cases, 70 were not proceeded with by the CPS and 25 cases were withdrawn by the police. In fact in all the high profile cases we see on our television screens the overwhelming majority result in no charges being brought, let alone any convictions.

Of the remaining 15 cases eight are ongoing and six were referred onwards for prosecution for homicide or other serious crime. Yes, some assisted suicide cases turn out to be cleverly disguised murders where the key witness to what really happened is dead. This is another reason why it is so crucial that all cases of alleged assisted suicide are properly investigated. It is the threat of an investigation that keeps us safe.

Since 2009 only one case has been successfully prosecuted, that of Kevin Howe in October 2013. 

Howe was jailed for twelve years after supplying his suicidal friend Stephen Walker with petrol and a lighter in order to set fire to himself. Walker suffered 90% burns but miraculously survived and now faces a life of treatment and disability as a result.

The only other person, not yet on the CPS website,  who has been convicted and sentenced, whom I am aware of subsequently, is Lyndsay Jones who provided another suicidal man Philip Makinson with a heroin and a syringe in order that he could kill himself with a lethal injection. She was jailed in July this year for four and a half years.

These are the sort of cases that end up in prison under the present law. 

We are also told by campaigners of the vast numbers of people who are making one way trips to Switzerland to end their lives at the Dignitas facility. But the reality is 273 cases in the 16 years from 1998 to 2014 – fewer than 20 a year. Although each individual case is a tragedy, the numbers are tiny when we put them alongside the 500,000 people who die in Britain each year from all causes and the 1,300 and 15,000 annual assisted suicide deaths we would have annually under the laws currently in place in Oregon and the Netherlands respectively.

Their significance has been magnified in a hugely disproportionate way by the media. If fact several have gone to Zurich accompanied by television news teams or have planned their deaths at strategic moments in the campaign in an almost cynical attempt to influence public opinion and place pressure on decision-makers. Most also did not need assistance to end their lives. And most notably not one relative or helper has so far been prosecuted.

The reality is that Britain’s law on assisted suicide is clear and right and is working well.

The strong penalties it holds in reserve act as a strong deterrent to exploitation and abuse as evidenced by the tiny number of people breaking it.

It is also being exercised compassionately as the discretion it gives to judges and prosecutors means that only two people have so far been convicted and sentenced under it in the last five years. And neither of these received the maximum sentence of 14 years.

Having a clear strong and simple law like this offers protection for disabled, sick and elderly people from those who have an interest, financial or otherwise in their deaths. Of course it does mean that those who wish to push its boundaries and break it – for whatever reason – run the risk of a police investigation, a prosecution and a possible custodial sentence.

But this is a very small price to pay given the protection that it offers.  

The law on assisted suicide is not broken. It is clear, just, merciful and fair. It does not need fixing. 

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Official - Chimps are not legal persons - I explain what this judgement means for Cecil the lion and others

In an astounding move last week, the Manhattan Supreme Court ruled that chimps are not persons under the law.

Judge Jaffes was not persuaded by the case presented by The Nonhuman Rights Project but did suggest that animal ‘personhood’ is possible in the not too distant future.

‘Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; some day they may even succeed,’ she wrote in a 33-page decision. ‘For now, however, given the precedent to which I am bound, it is hereby ordered, that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied and the proceeding is dismissed.’

The ruling will come as a huge blow to animal lovers – especially in the wake of the recent killing of the popular Zimbabwean lion Cecil by an American dentist.

This is because the Manhattan ruling casts Cecil’s own personhood status into doubt.   

However, those mourning the passing of Cecil and regretting this judgement will be comforted to learn that his brother Jericho, apparently also a lion, has now been confirmed to be alive, contrary to an earlier report of his demise.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, which had reported Jericho’s death on its Facebook page on Saturday, said on Sunday that the lion was ‘alive and well’ and has adopted the cubs of Cecil, whose recent killing sparked global outrage over big-game trophy hunting.

‘We apologize for reporting that he had died but were confident that our sources were in fact correct. This was a case of mistaken identity,’ the non-government task force wrote in the post.

In a fascinating twist, Jericho may in fact be relieved by the Manhattan court ruling, which although not legally binding in Africa, does add legal weight to his non-person status. Given Zimbabwe’s human rights record he is probably better off being a non-person and is not therefore expected to appeal the judgment.

Perhaps in celebration of this, the 11-year old lion on Sunday was observed ‘feeding on a giraffe kill with the lionesses from his pride’.

Another corollary of the Manhattan ruling, of course, is that giraffes are also non-persons, although judging by the lack of outrage about the (nameless) giraffe’s death at the paws and jaws of Jericho, some non-human non-persons (lions) are clearly of higher status than others (giraffes).

Whether this higher non-person status applies to all carnivores, or merely to those with higher intelligence, will need to be determined in subsequent judgements. The relative status of lions and chimpanzees, for instance, has not thus far been tested in court.

Although it may simply be that, as the said giraffe was killed by a member of another non-human species rather than by a legal person, the muted media response may be because a non-human non-person rather than a human person was responsible for his (or her) death.

In the meantime, the widespread international support for the harvesting and selling of human fetal parts by Planned Parenthood, a ‘charity’ financed by the US taxpayer, suggests that being a human non-person under the law (all US human unborn babies are legally non-persons) might be the most perilous position of all.

So perhaps the Manhattan court ruling might be good for chimpanzees after all. Better to be a non-human non-person (chimpanzee) than a human non-person (unborn baby).

Especially given that full personhood status might be just around the corner for Chimps. 

Monday 3 August 2015

The assisted suicide of Gill Pharaoh reminds us that there are actually limits to choice

You can listen to my interview on this case on BBC West Midlands here

 Last week I was contacted by the Sunday Times who were planning to run a high profile story about a 75 year old retired nurse being helped to kill herself in Switzerland.

The story of Gill Pharaoh’s death was later published last Sunday under the title ‘Why I’d rather die than get old’(£).

It was subsequently rerun by national dailies (see here and here) and ITV.

Not to be outdone, the BBC, euthanasia cheerleader extraordinaire, has now made it into an international media story (which incidentally speaks volumes about their ideological bias given their deafening silence on the Planned Parenthood body part scandal).

Pharaoh requested help to kill herself in a Basel ‘clinic’ because she found the reality of old age ‘awful’, did not ‘think old age is fun’, did not want to end up as a ‘hobbling old lady’ and because she did not want to be a ‘burden’ to her children. ‘The thought that I may need help from my children appalls me’, she wrote.

She added that expecting help from one’s children is ‘a most selfish and unreasonable view’.

And yet the former nurse had no major health problems and was on no medication. She had intermittent back pain following a bout of shingles and had tinnitus - about par for the course for a person of her age.

This evening I found myself live on ITV London in one of the most surreal TV debates of my life. 

The debate was barely three minutes long and sandwiched between an account of a bus having its top taken off and an interview with a couple who had been married for 25 years after meeting on (recently deceased) Cilla Black’s ‘Blind date’.

The show passed seamlessly from story to story with each being treated with an equal seriousness that only TV presenters could manage whilst keeping a straight face.

I started by saying that most people had been shocked and appalled by the Pharaoh case and that it had led to outrage on social media. The key question was why a woman encountering the usual maladies of growing old might resort to such desperate measures.

Sitting opposite me on the programme was Michael Irwin, retired GP and Director of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS).

Irwin is a seasoned euthanasia campaigner and was in fact struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC) in 2005 for attempting to help an Isle of Man politician take his own life.

He was subsequently thrown out of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now renamed Dignity in Dying) for his propensity to break the law as a means to having it changed.

Irwin has helped over 20 people with advice about how to kill themselves in Switzerland and has actually accompanied four to their deaths but has somehow managed to evade prosecution for ‘encouraging or assisting suicide’, a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison under the Suicide Act 1961.

I asked Irwin before the debate why he felt his life – at 84 he is nine years older than Pharaoh and hobbles with a walking stick – was worth living whilst Pharaoh’s was not. He said it was all about ‘choice’.  She had had enough but he had not.

What was it that gave his life meaning and purpose and made him think that life was worth living? Apparently being able to have debates on media on the issue with people like me! His commitment to the cause gave him a reason to live.

And here we come to the nub of the debate. This is not really about pain, or terminal illness or disability or even old age because these are not the real things motivating those who make one way trips over the English Channel.

It’s really about meaning, purpose and hope. This is borne out by the published facts from jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal.

In the US state of Oregon those making use of the Death with Dignity Act give ‘loss of autonomy’ (93%), ‘loss of enjoyment of life’ (89%) and ‘loss of dignity’ (73%) as the top three reasons for ending their lives. In Washington 61% cite ‘fear of being a burden on others’.

These are not medical reasons – they are existential or, perhaps more accurately, spiritual reasons.

And feeling this way is not strongly correlated with health status either. There are many sick, elderly and disabled people (the overwhelming majority) who desperately want to live – to grow old with their loved ones, to enjoy the last vestige of what life has to offer.

Similarly there are able-bodied people who desperately want their lives to end – either because they have lost hope or, as in Pharaoh’s case, because of what they fear might happen to then in the future.

Which should surely, I would have thought, prompt the response of us doing all we can, both to restore hope and allay fear, by caring for the physical, social and spiritual needs of the whole person. Not to pass over a barbiturate-spiked drink or provide accompaniment for a grisly last journey. 

Pharaoh’s (and Irwin’s) main argument is autonomy – choice. But choice is a two edged sword.
If choice really trumps all then why deny assisted suicide to anyone who wants it – including the ‘troubled teen’ and the ‘bereaved elderly’ as Philip Nitschke has put it?  Why not set up euthanasia booths on every street corner and offer partakers ‘a martini and a medal’ before offering them the lethal draught, as novelist Martin Amis has seriously suggested?

That is surely what consistency about choice should lead us to accept.

But the truth is that choice, although resonating with the zeitgeist of our postmodern secular humanist society, is a lame and vacuous argument.

Each one of us actually believes that there are limits to choice. That is precisely why in a free democratic society we have laws. I’d even suggest it is in fact those laws which actually make us free. I am not free to speed on the freeway or to throw a brick through my neighbour’s window, or to run off with his wife – out of respect for my neighbour’s freedom and dignity.

Choice has limits and that is actually what this debate should be about – where those limits lie and why.

Every law on the statute books stops some person doing what they desperately want to do. But laws are necessary simply because the exercise of one person’s freedom may endanger or undermine the reasonable freedoms of another. The fact that I desperately want something is not sufficient reason to change the law so that I may have my wish granted.

And it has been consistently the judgement of parliaments, doctors' groups and disability rights' activists in this country that any law allowing assisted suicide would place a burden on vulnerable sick, elderly and disabled people to end their lives for fear of being a burden on others. It would undermine their freedom precisely because their choice would not thereby be free – it would rather be a coercive offer.

Being a burden is part and parcel of being human. All of us at some time of our lives – not least at both ends - will be a burden. But 'mutual burdensomeness' is what true family and community is all about. 

Because a truly free and humane society is one in which the strong willingly make sacrifices for the weak, rather than sacrifice the weak to preserve their own freedoms.

By promoting the idea, as Pharaoh has (with the assistance of the British media), that it is ‘selfish and unreasonable’ to expect one’s loved ones (and the wider community) to offer care and support in times of need, is very dangerous indeed.

It will have the effect of intensifying the guilt that drives vulnerable people to contemplate suicide as a solution to ordinary human problems.

We should have no truck with this. There is a far better way of ministering to those paralysed in their choices by fear, dependence and lack of hope.

Bearing one another’s burdens is, after all, the essence of the ‘law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).

If you are concerned about the stories emerging from Planned Parenthood in America then please consider signing the pro-life declaration

You can sign The Pro-Life Declaration here

What does it mean to be ‘pro-life’?

The term has been tossed back and forth like a political football for so many decades that it's lost much of its meaning. Pro-life supporters are painted as ‘radical’ by the media and ‘anti-women’ by pundits.

But the recent exposure of Planned Parenthood for the large-scale flogging of human body parts for profit (see also hereherehere and here) – along with a long catalogue of past misdemeanours - is causing more and more people to realise that they are, in fact, pro-life.

The argument goes like this. If the baby in the womb is not a human being with rights then what seriously is the problem with treating it as a commodity to be cannibalised for parts which can be bought and sold?

On the other hand, if you are concerned then why are you not equally concerned about the destruction of any human life before birth at any stage?

Let’s be consistent. Planned Parenthood are being ruthlessly consistent.

It’s time to unite around the foundational truths that define what it means to be ‘pro-life’.

That's why leaders of the pro-life movement have written The Pro-Life Declaration and over one hundred thousand people have signed it.

In four simple statements, the Declaration articulates the basics of the pro-life position void of any exemptions or excuses.

1.   I believe every life has dignity and limitless potential.

Despite age, physical ability, or vulnerability, everyone should be given the opportunity to live and make their mark in the world.

2.   I believe the “right to life” is the most fundamental right protected by America’s founding documents.

America’s forefathers recognized the importance of the “right to life,” citing it as the first of all rights given in the Declaration of Independence.

3.   I believe life should be protected and defended from the moment of conception until natural death.

Abortion must be prevented at every stage of development. Every human has the right to a full life.

4.   I believe grace, compassion and understanding are essential to protecting life.

We must be committed to working across racial, ethnic, religious and economic divides to restore the sanctity of human life in communities across the world.

You can sign The Pro-Life Declaration here Please pass it on

See also the Stand with Rand petition to defund Planned Parenthood

Sunday 2 August 2015

Critics of Bible Silenced Once Again: Archaeological Discoveries Prove Old Testament to be historically accurate

The Christians in Pakistan website published an interesting article last week on Old Testament Archaeology which I have summarised here.

Old Testament critics previously argued that Moses invented the stories found in Genesis. In doing so, they basically claimed that there was no verification that the people and cities mentioned in the oldest of biblical accounts ever really existed.

However the discovery of the Ebla archive in northern Syria in the 1970′s put paid to all that.

In a large library inside a royal archive room the excavating team discovered almost 15,000 ancient tablets and fragments dating from 2400 -2300 BC.

When joined together these accounted for about 2,500 tablets which confirmed that personal and location titles in the Biblical Patriarchal accounts are authentic.

For a long period of time, the critics of the Old Testament used to argue that the name ‘Canaan’ was used wrongly in the early chapters of the Bible. But the word ‘Canaan’ appears on the Ebla tablets proving that the term was actually used in ancient Syria during the time in which the Old Testament was written.

Additionally, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed at the time of Abraham, were also thought to be pure fiction by Bible critics. But these cities are also identified in the Ebla tablets. Also mentioned is the city of Haran, described in Genesis as the city of Abram’s father, Terah.  Previous to this discovery, ‘scholars’ doubted the actual existence of the ancient city.

In addition to this, countless other archaeological findings confirm the biblical records to be real and accurate. Some of these findings are listed below:

• The campaign into Israel by Pharaoh Shishak (1 Kings 14:25-26) is recorded on the walls of the Temple of Amun in Thebes, Egypt.
• The revolt of Moab against Israel (2 Kings 1:1; 3:4-27) is recorded on the Mesha Inscription.
• The fall of Samaria (2 Kings 17:3-6, 24; 18:9-11) to Sargon II, king of Assyria, is recorded on his palace walls.
• The defeat of Ashdod by Sargon II (Isaiah 20:1) is recorded on his palace walls.
• The campaign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib against Judah (2 Kings 18:13-16) is recorded on the Taylor Prism.
• The siege of Lachish by Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:14, 17) is recorded on the Lachish reliefs.
• The assassination of Sennacherib by his own sons (2 Kings 19:37) is recorded in the annals of his son Esarhaddon.
• The fall of Nineveh as predicted by the prophets Nahum and Zephaniah (2 Kings 2:13-15) is recorded on the Tablet of Nabopolasar.
• The fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-14) is recorded in the Babylonian Chronicles.
• The captivity of Jehoiachin, king of Judah, in Babylon (2 Kings 24:15-16) is recorded on the Babylonian Ration Records.
• The fall of Babylon to the Medes and Persians (Daniel 5:30-31) is recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder.
• The freeing of captives in Babylon by Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1:1-4; 6:3-4) is recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder.

Further blogs on the reliability of Scripture

How do we know the NT documents were written in the first century?