The fight for your life is now raging

If the Assisted Dying Bill goes through, will you one day feel pressured to hasten your own death?

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

Beneath your noses, a great change in this country is being planned. Secret polls have been taken, and a private member’s bill has been tabled. The euthanasia lobby is limbering up for the fight of its life: to change the law for once and for all.

The Assisted Dying Bill, introduced by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, is the fourth such to come before the House of Lords in the last decade. Since it is almost identical to the last bill, which sought to let doctors supply lethal drugs to terminally ill patients and which Parliament rejected in 2006, why is this one being introduced?

The answer has largely to do with the changed composition of the Lords. Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, hopes that of the 200 new peers ennobled since 2006, enough can be swayed to secure a majority in favour of legalising euthanasia. Accordingly, the barons are being bombarded with literature and badgered by prominent parliamentarians. The former Labour whip in the Lords, Baroness Jay, is one of them.

The plan of attack looks like this: the bill, first introduced in May last year, receives a second reading in the House of Lords in 2014. It may not make it into law imminently, but the modest proposal will find its way into party manifestos a year from now, before becoming a major plank in the social policy of any Lib-Lab coalition after 2015.

The vice-chair of Dignity in Dying, Dr Philip Graham, a psychiatrist, believes the battle will be bitterly fought. Though he thinks public opinion in general has shifted, as he told me, ‘Those in favour are more passionately in favour, those opposed more passionately opposed.’ Graham draws a sharp distinction, as does the draft bill, between assisted suicide and assisted dying — i.e. between enabling anyone to end their life and helping to hasten the deaths of the deeply suffering terminally ill. Uncomfortable with the idea that people who are suicidal but not terminally ill should have the right to end their lives, Graham wants to see Falconer and not a jot more. (Indeed, if Dignity in Dying were to campaign for an extension of the grounds to include assisted suicide, he says he would resign.)

The faults in Falconer are manifold, however, and it is crucial that they are exposed. For example, the 11 peers who comprise the Living and Dying Well think tank have emphasised how unreliable prognoses of terminal illnesses are ‘at the range [the bill] envisages’ — six months out. We just aren’t that good at predicting death. The peers have also highlighted the alarming potential hazards of ‘doctor shopping’ if the bill were passed: as we’ve seen in other countries where euthanasia has been legalised, some medical practitioners are more willing to sign than others.

But the more important point is that we run the risk of being naive about ‘choice’. Falconer states two doctors must confirm that the candidate ‘has a clear and settled intention to end their own life which has been reached voluntarily, on an informed basis and without coercion and duress.’ That sounds fair, but life and death are never that simple, are they?

For the last three years I have been working for a Westminster think tank, the Centre for Social Justice. I was part of an extensive research project looking at the reality of life for the poorest older people in Britain. I visited care homes in north London where people had been left abandoned in wheelchairs on landings during construction works, as sawdust fell down on them. Palliative care nurses took me to visit elderly men dying of lung cancer, whose only interaction with human beings was with the professionals paid to care for them. I surveyed ‘back-to-back’ houses in inner-city Leeds, where a frail widow told me about having to crawl up steep staircases on all fours. I met with hospital geriatricians who bore witness to men and women with dementia turning up in A&E in the middle of winter dressed in summer clothes. Again and again the comparison with the way black and other ethnic-minority groups treated their elders was devastating: unlike minority groups, all too often white Britons just don’t seem to care about old people.

Meanwhile, from the body of dedicated men and women working in impressive institutions like Age UK, the message which really stuck with me was this: older people do feel they are becoming a burden — to the state, to society, to their families. They may never say so, but our endless talk of the ageing society as a ‘demographic time-bomb’ has rubbed off.

And it is in this context that we are contemplating introducing euthanasia? Because the whole point about the ‘coercion’ Falconer is adamant to avoid is that the more powerful it is, the less explicit it will be. How do we know if a terminally ill person feels pressured to hasten their death? They will certainly not admit it.

Liberalism as a philosophy has always insisted upon exit routes. You shouldn’t be able to sell yourself into perpetual slavery, even if you do so freely, because you can’t reverse that decision. Euthanasia, failing that test, is therefore illiberal. Falconer adds to his bill an almost template ‘Form of Declaration’, to be signed by the person seeking to end his or her life. It reads: ‘I make this declaration voluntarily and in the full knowledge of its significance. I understand that I may revoke this declaration at any time.’ Is this some kind of sick joke?

Euthanasia advocates complain about the way their opponents bleat on about ‘the thin end of the wedge’. But the reason we do so is because, as with the whole abortion issue, we have seen wedges getting thicker. What started out as an urgent measure to help distressed women in desperate circumstances has become 190,000 abortions a year and rising. Incremental steps, minor adjustments, tiny turns — that is how great and terrible change occurs.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

James Mumford is currently a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for the Advanced Studies in Culture.

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  • anyfool

    When Falconer was in power with Labour you had a sort of assisted dying, it ended up with thousands dying from deliberate neglect by medical staff, this was made worse by the Labour Health Secretaries deliberately covering up.
    So they want to give the power of life or death over the most frail members of society to people who have already caused thousands upon thousands of deaths, it certainly help their waiting list targets.
    That two doctors are to sign these death certificate`s will not add any safety to this disgusting piece of national socialist doctrine, after all these same doctors walked by while the ill were left to die in hospitals all around the country.

    • Real Nurses Don’t Kill

      Do look up Ruuward van Puttens hospital case – ongoing in the Netherlands at present – ~800 unexpected deaths in one hospital, so the case notes were examined….seems a lot of the nursing staff found going through the niceties of the euthanasia protocol too much bother – not only using the wrong drugs, but also not bothering to wait for a request either….tweet @Tom Mortier too…his mum was clinically depressed – he thought everything was ok, then he got a letter through the door to say she’d been euthanased the previous day! Yes Falconer, ‘it’ really works like a dream in those countries where ‘its’ been legalised! I wonder how much dosh Pratchett’s used so far to massage his own ego…creative writing skills certainly came into their own with all those anon emails Falconer considered in his commission….

      ..especially the Dignity in Dying ‘poll’ which suggested 80% of the population were in favour of physician assisted suicide…..the marketing company they paid to run it don’t even state whether it was a random sample of the population or a random sample of their email address book…..

      • anyfool

        Falconer is a debased lying creature who played his part in the last Labour governments destruction of anything decent that was left in this country.

        physician assisted suicide…..This will quickly become like in Holland, compulsory physician assisted suicide…..you can judge from how quickly the Liverpool Care Pathway became a method of culling the old and very ill long before they became terminal.

  • JonBW

    If the law allows assisted dying, people with terminal conditions (or even those that are chronic and incurable) will be left vulnerable to external pressure and, worse still, a sense of duty to consent to the ending of their own lives.

    This is wrong; our current laws, and the way they are observed, are right.

  • Hugh_Oxford

    It’s the same old story. A very, very small number of individuals – literally tens of people – amplified by an ideologically charged media, are driving this agenda.

    The overwhelming majority of people don’t want to be killed, no matter how sick or old they are, even if they previously claimed they wanted to be. That is the reality.

    Many people feel directly threatened by this legislation: the weakest people in our society. It is insidious and nasty. There is a reason we do not kill: when we start, nobody is safe. But we have been killing the weak and the vulnerable in the womb since 1967, so there might be a symmetrical irony here.

  • serguei_p

    The argument about people been “pressured to hasten your own death” is simply stupid.
    Should sex be banned because some people might feel pressured to have sex?

    Person’s life is his own. One should not be prevented to finish it simply because someone somewhere else might be pressured to do the same.

    • DiscWorld

      The argument concerning people being pressured into hastening their own death is far from stupid. However this cannot be said for your argument. All it says is me me me. The only way you have the illusion of ‘control’ as such over your own death is suicide. You are free to do so.

    • Commit suicide in the privacy of your own home then. Over the counter medications can do it. Don’t involve healthcare staff that have to serve us too. You are contaminating our ability to trust them.

  • Nick

    There’s only one thing more evil than religion and that’s the misinterpretation of religion.
    And that misinterpretation of religion combined with our archaic laws are beyond evil.And I think even the devil himself,if he existed would wonder and marvel at how evil humans are at allowing people to suffer when they want to end their lives.

    If one day I wish my life to be terminated because I am suffering with dementia or cancer for example,it shouldn’t be the decision of some judge or religious group as to whether I should be allowed to die or not.

    I don’t believe in God…..Religion is a pile of junk…..And our law is useless.
    If I want to end my life one day because of a suffering illness,please let me do it in peace and dignity.

    • Real Nurses Don’t Kill

      just go on the Liverpool care pathway like Mr Nicklinson did …shame they put so many non terminally ill patients on it without consent ….shame no solicitor wants the case work on a low quantum death…and a shame dear mrs Neuberger deliberately chose the terms of reference for her shambolic ‘impartial review’ in such a way that it only the relatives of the genuinely terminally ill could make a submission –

  • Nesbyth

    People with dementia cannot seek to end their lives, according to the wording on this proposed Bill, as they are not in their right minds. The majority who have “lost their minds” have someone as a Power of Attorney to sign everything for them….the majority of the elderly who are house-bound or in care homes have some form of dementia or Alzheimers and have POA’s.
    The so-called “useless people” bed-blocking etc who Falconer and co would like to be euthanized into the next life cannot necessarily sign anything in their right minds. How can such people have ” a clear and settled intention to end their own life which has been reached voluntarily, on an informed basis and without coercion and duress.’ ?
    These are Falconer’s words.
    So my guess is (just like the abortion law has endlessly been extended past its original intentions) that if a Euthanasia Bill is passed, it will be extended ad infinitum to include all the hapless elderly who are not “useful” BUT they won’t be able to sign their life away, so who will? Those with Power of Attorney? Who will make this “clear and settled intention”?

  • I find it incredible that what is clearly the driver of Mr Mumford’s article doesn’t get a mention. How disingenuous can you get? Mumford is a happy clappy born again Christian . His call, however odd. But these evangelicals are not supporters of the right to choose on anything. Abortion. Euthanasia. Anything. They flip through their bibles and tell you life is sacred. So that is that. We know what’s right for you. So suffer in silence and don’t ask for relief from it – it’s God’s will ! Ha!!

    • Paddy your ad hominemn response is rather beneath the seriousness of this issue. Rather than respond to the substance of the topic, what James discusses and argues, you choose instead the cheapest form of rhetoric.

      Do you assume anyone who isn’t an atheist, has no right to discuss this issue?

      • My response is entirely serious. If the reason somebody peddles a line, however verbose that peddling is, is not disclosed it is right to point that out. Surely?

        • Peddles and verbose? How so? Again you denigrate the subject at hand and the argument proposed by James Mumford, and opt for cheap shots.

          How about attending the issue at hand, the argument made and raising the issue of the place of religious belief or none for this most important of issues.

          “I had become too accustomed to the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one. This vulgar method, which is now the norm and the standard in much non-Left journalism as well, is designed to have the effect of making any noisy moron into a master analyst.”
          ― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

          • Of course I agree with Hitchens. But if I am conflicted in anything I say or write I disclose it. Mr Mumford is clearly conflicted as a result of his strong Religious beliefs. He is unobjectve as a result of them. I wouldn’t call Mr Mumford a “noisy moron” – but he is a disingenuous writer and that I deplore.

          • I’ll try one last time. How is Mumford conflicted and un-objective. Your claim that he is so, is based on nothing other than him having religious beliefs. That’s a the kind of bigoted logic that religious people use about other, claims with no warrants.

            My use of Hitchens was ironic, he illustrates the process you have used to respond to James Mumford. This topic alone deserves better than dismissing people’s discussions just because you consider anyone with a faith view as being negated from public debate.

          • I do not accept the charge you make and you have no evidence for it. I have nothing to add. There’s none so blind……