New parliamentary bid to legalise assisted suicide
MPs ARE TO HAVE a free vote on a bill allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients to die. The bill, which has been drawn up by Lord Falconer, is expected to be debated within a few months.
Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat minister with responsibility for care of the elderly and the disabled, has announced that he will vote in favour of the bill. He told the Sunday Telegraph that the Government should not ‘stand in the way’ of people who want to end their life providing that appropriate regulations were in place.
Opinion polls suggest that up to 75 per cent of the population support assisted suicide although church leaders have opposed the policy. According to the Daily Mail 30 per cent of MPs support a change in the law and 40 per cent are undecided, meaning that there is a strong likelihood that the measure will be passed.
At present helping someone to end their life can lead to a punishment of up to 14 years in prison but in 2010 the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Keith Starmer, announced that anyone ‘acting out of compassion’ who helped a loved one to die who had reached a ‘settled and informed’ decision was unlikely to be charged.
The guidelines were issued in response to a case brought by Debbie Purdy, a terminally ill woman who won a ruling in 2008 requiring Mr Starmer to say whether her husband would be prosecuted for accompanying her to the Swiss Dignitas clinic to die.
The bill drawn up by Lord Falconer allows doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of drugs to people who have less than six months to live. Two doctors would be required to sign the prescription.
Patients would be expected to take the drug themselves although doctors would be able to help them if they had difficulty in swallowing.
The bill will be first introduced into the House of Lords within the next four months. If passed, it will then go to the Commons.
Supporters of the bill say it will help people who are in great suffering and that it is necessary to give legal clarity to the present situation following the statement of Keith Starmer in 2010.
Opponents say that it is difficult for doctors to predict with certainty how long someone will live. There is concern that people who feel a burden to their families will feel under an obligation to end their lives. Critics also worry that the bill will give further impetus to a growing trend to deny elderly patients medicines that might prolong their lives.
In a lecture at Oxford in 2012, an Australian Catholic bishop and bioethicist, Anthony Fisher, warned against an attitude that saw the elderly as ‘a swarm of voracious but unworthy consumers of resources which doctors must guard them from’.
He argued that age should not be a criterion for health care distribution but there have been growing complaints that elderly patients have not only be deprived of medicines but also denied food and fluids in order to hasten their death.