Can one ever satisfy the assisted suicide debate?

Law Think examines timely and timeless legal and human rights issues facing the UK and the world.

Leon Glenister was part of a consultation group at the University of Cambridge which responded to the DPP’s interim policy on prosecuting assisted suicide in late 2009.

Today, the Commission on Assisted Dying published their report. In a well-researched and well-reasoned paper, the Commission set out a possible framework for a law that allows assisted suicide in certain situations.

On the title page, the Commission deemed the current law “inadequate and incoherent”. In the main, it states that there is compassion both in the record of prosecutions for assisted suicide and the prosecution guidance. However, because assisted suicide remains a criminal offence there is uncertainty for police and prosecutors, and patients may not discuss the issue with any professionals. Therefore there is cause for change.

In a previous blog, I discussed that there was a general feeling that assisted suicide should be allowed in the ‘extreme’ cases of those individuals who could no longer physically function such as Daniel James and Diane Pretty. The problem was over how these cases may be sectioned off from the majority, in order that we don’t open the floodgates.

In my opinion the Commission set out some realistic safeguards. In their framework, one must be over 18 and making a voluntary choice with capacity to be eligible. One must have a terminal illness which is defined by the Commission as an “advanced, progressive, incurable condition that is likely to lead to the patient’s death within the next 12 months”. There must be assessment by two independent doctors, and the person must have been fully informed of all other treatment and care options for the end of their life.

However, as well thought out and well-reasoned any safeguards are, they will not persuade everybody. This is because of the breadth of opinion on the issue. When I was part of a research group responding to the DPP’s consultation on prosecuting assisted suicide, we had views ranging from the hardline pro-lifer to the liberal who thought anyone should be able to have assistance dying whether they are well, ill, old or young.

For example the liberal’s response to the Commission’s safeguards may be “why does there need to be a terminal illness?” For example, look at the case of Dennis and Flora Milner, a couple in the eighties who committed suicide together. They had no illness, but just felt their standard of life was no longer worthwhile. On the flip side, a conservative may argue over the fact the Commission’s framework allows a terminally ill person to have assistance dying when they could just commit suicide on their own. On this point it is interesting to note a factor tending towards prosecution in the CPS guidelines is the fact a “victim was physically able to undertake the act that constituted the assistance himself or herself; this is a very different position to the Commission framework.

It is the fact that there is such a breadth in view that the European Court of Human Rights have shied away from setting any guidelines or rules over assisted suicide. When the issue reached the Court in Pretty v UK, the Court merely confirmed that an absolute prohibition on assisted suicide was compatible with the UK’s duty to respect Mrs Pretty’s right to private life.

The range of opinion is so great that this report will clearly be criticised by both the liberals and hard line conservatives. The religious dimension of the debate makes views only more inflexible and entrenched. Because of this entrenchment views are unlikely to converge, unlike many other social debates such as the death penalty. Any law that is passed will be widely criticised for one reason or another.

Hopefully most will agree the current law needs changing – the absolute prohibition on assisted dying on the law books coupled with a compassion-headed prosecution policy creates huge uncertainty for all involved. However we proceed on the Report, it will be controversial. But what the Report has done is provide some much needed research on the topic and should be useful in forming a base for future discussions.

**See a previous post on this issue here.**

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