By Dr. Peter Saunders
Editor’s note. Dr. 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.
Now that the Tony Nicklinson case is over and the next assisted suicide bills (from Falconer in the House of Lords and Macdonald in Scotland) are not to be debated until next year one could be forgiven for thinking that the relentless media pressure for the legalisation of euthanasia might relent for a few weeks.
But no – first we have the pronouncements of junior health ministers Norman Lamb and Anna Soubry giving their support for the legalisation of assisted suicide and now the BBC, in its role as cheerleader for assisted suicide, is making an international news story about the fact that it is ten years since the first Briton went to the Dignitas suicide facility in Zurich to kill himself.
This is actually a non-story. The on-going sad procession of desperate Britons on the Swiss suicide trail is in reality a tiny trickle but every new case is seized upon by sections of the British media, and especially the BBC, in an attempt to create the impression that there is a huge ‘unmet need’ and as a further opportunity to say again that we must have the debate that we have actually not stopped having constantly for the last six years.
In fact, given that the BBC repeatedly breaches international suicide prevention guidelines in its coverage, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a significant number of those travelling abroad have been encouraged to do so by seeing others doing it on television with full media and celebrity support.
The carefully orchestrated and well-funded celebrity driven campaign run by Dignity in Dying, the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society, is skilled at getting hugely disproportionate coverage for every new case it can find and the BBC, in particular, is only too willing to provide them with an international media platform.
Today’s story is in the news because DID obtained some new figures from Dignitas and sent out a press release to sympathetic media outlets including the BBC. The BBC have also given prominence to an emotive hard case in a prime time slot in Radio four whilst relegating a more serious examination of the issues to a time when far fewer people were listening.
The reality is that between 2002 and 2011 a total of 182 Britons – on average 18 per year – have killed themselves at Dignitas. Numbers per year since 2006 have been relatively constant between 20 and 30 per year.
These numbers are a tiny fraction of the 550,000 natural deaths that occur in Britain each year and a very small trickle compared with the 650 and 13,000 who, on the basis of the 2005 Lords Select Committee report, it was estimated would die in Britain annually under an Oregon or Dutch-type law, respectively.
The 750% increase in assisted suicides amongst Swiss nationals since 1998, along with the disturbing 18% annual increase in euthanasia in the Netherlands over the last year will sound strong alarms to legislators in Britain that we should not be contemplating going down this route.
Reports from the Netherlands of psychiatric and dementia patients being euthanized and mobile euthanasia clinics along with Belgian accounts of organs being harvested from euthanasia patients and 32% of all euthanasia deaths being ‘without consent’ understandably fuel this concern.
Public opinion polls supporting a change in the law can be easily manipulated when high media profile (and often celebrity-driven) ‘hard cases’ are used to elicit emotional reflex responses without consideration of the strong arguments against legalisation.
But when these arguments are heard decision-makers have consistently voted against. There have been over 120 attempts to legalise assisted suicide through US state parliaments all of which have failed in the last fifteen years.
British parliaments have also rejected any loosening of the law here three times over the last five years – in 2006, 2009 and 2010 – on the basis that any change would place pressure on vulnerable people (those who are elderly, disabled, sick or depressed) to end their lives for fear of being a financial or emotional burden on others.
More than seven out of ten MPs refuse to back calls to legalise assisted suicide as shown in a recent ComRes poll.
The vast majority of UK doctors remain opposed to legalisation along with the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians, the Association for Palliative Medicine and the British Geriatric Society.
Similarly all major disability rights groups in Britain have resisted any change in the law believing it will lead to increased prejudice towards them and increased pressure ‘to seek help to die’.
The first duty of Parliament is to protect its citizens. Elder abuse and neglect by families, carers and institutions is real and dangerous and a law allowing the active ending of life could be so easily exploited and abused. This is why strong laws are necessary.
The British Suicide Act is thereby shown to remain fit for purpose. Through its blanket prohibition on all assistance with suicide, it continues to provide a strong deterrent to the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people whilst giving both prosecutors and judges’ discretion in hard cases. It strikes the right balance, is clear and fair and does not need changing.
Ten years of Dignitas and ongoing media pressure should actually change nothing.
This appeared on Dr. Saunders’ blog.