The last time that ‘assisted dying’ was debated in the commons was 2015 when the proposal to lift the prohibition on assisted suicide was decisively defeated by 330 votes to 118.
A new private members bill with the same objective has been introduced in the House of Lords. My expectation is that it will complete its progress in the Lords and arrive in the Commons early next year.
I have used this column previously to describe the pitfalls facing private member’s bills in the Commons. To be successful they really need to be of very limited scope and wholly uncontroversial. The principal enemy of such legislation is time: A vote on the scale that defeated the 2015 bill is rare because opponents of any private member’s bills don’t have to trouble themselves to vote against the measures: They just need to take up time available debating it until that allotted time runs out.
The only hope for a controversial private member’s bill is for it to be rescued by the Government by being granted government time. Given, the pressure that the Government is under to find time for its own legislative priorities, this is unlikely.
The signals that are currently leaking out of the Government are that no such assistance will be made available to an assisted suicide bill in this parliamentary session.
So, that looks like the end of that. The question is however, why would the Government pass up the opportunity of supporting such a measure, because opinion polls have for many years shown consistent popular support for legalising assisted suicide?
Pollsters ask for an instant opinion on complex issues which might rarely, if ever, have occupied the minds of members of the public who have their own busy lives to take up their time. The whole point of representative democracy is that the elected representatives are required to look in detail at the implications of any proposal, to listen to the arguments, before taking the time to decide -time that members of the public ordinarily just do not have.
My estimate is that in 2015 when assisted suicide was so decisively defeated, many MPs actually came to the Commons sharing the public prejudice in favour of it. After all, few of us relish voting against something that we know our electors support. When they heard the debate examining the consequences of changing the law however, they changed their minds about it
Suicide is contagious, our own figures -without allowing the possibility of assistance- are quite worrying enough. The experience in those jurisdictions where assistance is permitted show even more alarming trends.
My principal concerns are first, the profound way that our perception of the medical profession will change when the doctor comes not always with the intention of curing, but of killing.
Second, nobody wants to feel that they are a burden to others, so the frail, sick and elderly will come under ever so subtle pressure to avoid being a burden to the rest of us; to eschew expensive care and to follow the ‘selfless’ examples of others by accepting medical assistance to end their lives.
For an already overburdened healthcare system just imagine the savings to be had. It is a short distance from assisted dying to euthanasia.
Rather than contemplating legalising assisted suicide we should, on the contrary, be investing in giving patients dignity in dying by providing much better palliative care, so that nobody feels the need to end their lives prematurely either for fear of an agonising death subsequently, or because they have been made to feel a burden to the rest of us.