By Dr. Peter Saunders
Even before it was launched in November 2010, commentators were asking serious questions about the status and independence of Lord Falconer’s so-called ‘independent commission on assisted dying’.
These concerns intensified when it emerged that the privately organised inquiry was the idea of campaign group ‘Dignity in Dying’ (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) and was being funded by celebrity novelist and Dignity in Dying patron Terry Pratchett (who like Baroness Warnock backs legalising assisted suicide for people with Alzheimer’s disease).
The pro-euthanasia lobby had evidently decided to take this ‘independent’ route because their attempts to legalise assisted suicide through the standard parliamentary processes had failed by large margins at the previous two attempts (148-100 and 194-141 in the House of Lords in 2006 and 2009 respectively).
At the commission’s launch on 30 November it was revealed that nine of the twelve commissioners were well-known names in the pro-legalisation lobby.
When the “Care Not Killing Alliance” and five other major stakeholders declined to give evidence to the commission on the grounds that it was ‘unnecessary, unbalanced and lacking in transparency,’ Falconer attempted to resurrect its lost credibility by turning to others.
Dignity in Dying then contacted its own members asking them to give evidence to its own commission.
In the lead up to the British Medical Association (BMA) annual representative meeting last June Falconer was embarrassingly dissected by Radio Four’s Ed Stourton on the Sunday Programme and confirmed the bias in composition of the commission.
Not surprisingly a week later the BMA passed a five-part motion undermining the commission’s credibility.
About a month later Falconer announced that the commission was now going to start ‘considering’ its evidence. This was not meant to happen until this autumn but the very scant evidence gathered had necessitated this early roll up.
Ever since this time we have been waiting for the announcement of Falconer’s seemingly inevitable conclusion that ‘the law should be changed to allow mentally competent terminally ill people to be helped to kill themselves within strict up-front safeguards’.
Now it seems that we are finally to be put out of our agony. According to the Guardian the commission is going to report in November.
Falconer has apparently concluded that ‘the systems in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US state of Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, would be unacceptable in the UK’.
Well that’s interesting given that Dignity in Dying have been advocating the Oregon model for some years. I suspect that he probably means that he is going to tweak one or two of the Oregon ‘safeguards’ rather than taking them completely as is.
But he also tells us that his commission is set to offer a British, ‘gradualist’ alternative.
Gradualist? That’s a very interesting word. Is he telling us that he is seeing the changes his commission will recommend as a ‘first step’? It certainly does sound like it.
But it leaves us with the question of what the next step (and indeed the final step) will be.
Editor’s note. Dr Peter Saunders is a former general surgeon and CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organization with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members. This appears on his blog.