Assisted Suicide Given New Life in the United Kingdom

Legislation Attempts to Draw Parallel With Oregon Law

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By Robert Clarke of Alliance Defending Freedom

Eight years after a previous euthanasia bill was blocked, questions as to the legality and morality of assisted suicide will soon be resurrected as the United Kingdom’s upper house, the House of Lords, considers an “Assisted Dying” bill. The bill is set to be debated before the summer recess. It legalizes assisted suicide when the patient is terminally ill; has a clear and settled intention to end his or her own life; has made a written declaration to that effect; is over 18 years old; and has been a resident in England and Wales for at least one year.

Terminal illness is defined as one which is “reasonably expected” to cause the death of the patient within six months, and the bill requires the consent of two doctors, independent of one another. When those conditions are satisfied, it allows the doctor, or a nominee, to provide medicines for the purpose of ending life in 14 days (or in some cases, six days) after the written declaration is signed.

The bill goes so far as to allow an “assisting health professional” to prepare the medicine or a device to enable administration and to “[a]ssist that person to ingest or otherwise self-administer the medicine” provided that the “final act of doing so…be taken by the person for whom the medicine has been prescribed.”

Those who support the bill, including the lobby group “Dignity in Dying”—formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society—argue that the proposed law is most similar to Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” which they claim has “worked for 16 years with no evidence of abuse.” This is no doubt an attempt to distance the bill from the clear evidence of abuse of similar laws in Belgium and the Netherlands, and fails to stand up to scrutiny.

On further examination, it quickly becomes evident that Oregon isn’t quite the shining example that the bill’s proponents would have us believe. Ten years after the Oregon law came into being, one leading expert commented:

“[the] reality is that the Act allows a ‘terminally ill’ patient who is psychiatrically disordered (though not so as to cause ‘impaired judgment’) to ‘shop around’ for any two doctors willing to certify that the Act’s requirements have been met, even though neither doctor has seen the patient before or has any expertise in palliative care or psychiatry. It then allows the patient to make … a written request for lethal medication…which [could, in law be] witnessed by the patient’s heir and the heir’s best friend, and two weeks later to obtain lethal medication…”

Exactly the same criticism could be leveled at this bill, except you wouldn’t need to bring the heir’s friend along, and in some cases, the drugs can be provided after just six days.

Despite whatever safeguards exist ‘on paper’ in Oregon, the extent to which they provide any actual protection is more questionable. As Alexander Capron, former director of the Department of Ethics, Trade, Human Rights, and Health Law at the World Health Organization, has observed, the safeguards in Oregon are “largely illusory.”

The British bill also fails to adopt Oregon’s requirement to recommend a psychiatric assessment in the case of any uncertainty. As Baroness Hollins, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has said, even if such a provision were introduced, assessing mental capacity is not like checking tire pressure, and normally requires an in-depth knowledge and experience of the patient in question.   

In addition to the impossibility of legislating for adequate safeguards both in theory and practice, the future implications of such a change cannot be ignored. While the bill’s proponents seek to draw attention away from the few states closer to home that have followed this course, claims that this liberalization of the law would lead to a “slippery slope” must find support in the recent vote in Belgium to extend assisted suicide to children.  

As the debate rages, the government has indicated it will give members of parliament a free vote on the bill, even though Prime Minister David Cameron has made his opposition clear. A disabled member of the House of Lords, Baroness Campbell, also opposes the bill, saying that the bill “sent a shiver down [her] spine” and left her feeling as though she was “on the list.”

Similarly, a group of charity campaigners, including 11-time Paralympic gold medalist Baroness Grey-Thompson, in an open letter to the Daily Telegraph, asked a question that Parliament would be well-advised to consider, “Why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide, we focus on how we can make that possible?”

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Robert Clarke is litigation staff counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom in Vienna, Austria.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an international alliance-building legal organization that advocates for religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family. Alliance Defending Freedom is at the forefront of legal battles in these areas, with more cases before the European Court of Human Rights than any other faith-based legal organization, and involvement in numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Alliance Defending Freedom has an alliance of nearly 2,300 attorneys worldwide.  ADF is also accredited with the European Parliament, EU Fundamental Rights Agency, Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, and Organization for American States, and has consultative status with the United Nations.

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