By Dr. Peter Saunders
Editor’s note. In the parliamentary system the government originates most legislation. One of the few opportunities for ordinary Members of Parliament who are not spokesmen for a party is what is called a “private members’ bill.” The higher the draw, the more likely it is the bill will get debating time.
A Labour back bench Member of Parliament (MP) is bringing a new ‘assisted dying’ bill before the House of Commons.
Wolverhampton South West’s Rob Marris drew first place in the private members’ ballot last month and says he will pursue a bill broadly in line with Lord Falconer’s proposals.
Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, which made provision for mentally competent adults with six months or less to live to be prescribed lethal drugs, ran out of parliamentary time before the election on May 5.
Falconer subsequently sought to introduce it in the new parliament but drew only 21st place in the Lords ballot, leading to the bill’s supporters to approach Marris.
The move comes after MSPs voted 82-36 against Patrick Harvie’s Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament on May 27.
Marris’s Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill received its first reading in the House of Commons this week, and debate on the principle of the Bill (second reading) takes place on September 11.
It is usual to publish a parliamentary bill on or soon after the first reading but Marris has curiously chosen not to do this.
Some have speculated that this is a tactic aimed at keeping those opposed to the bill guessing as to its contents in order to give less time to mount specific criticisms ahead of the second reading debate.
The long title of the Bill reads as follows: ‘A Bill to enable competent adults who are terminally ill to choose to be provided with medically supervised assistance to end their own life; and for connected purposes.’
So the crucial elements are the same as Falconer’s Bill: mental competency, terminal illness, medical supervision and self-administration.
But there is little detail on the proposed mechanism.
However, Dignity in Dying (DID – formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) have published on their website this weekend, a specimen [sample] letter for supporters to send to their MPs which gives much more detail as to the bill’s provisions.
They describe it as follows:
‘Under this Bill, if a terminally ill patient wishes to end their life two doctors and a High Court judge must be satisfied that all the safeguards have been met. Both doctors must separately and independently examine the patient and their medical records, confirming that they are terminally ill, have mental capacity, are informed about their end-of-life care options and that they have the ability to make a voluntary and informed decision without pressure. All of this is then verified and checked by the judge.’
In other words Marris’s bill is almost identical to Falconer’s new bill. And as DID have actually drafted Marris’s bill and are pulling all the strings (Marris is merely the marionette), we can be fairly confident that this is an accurate description.
DID also reveal in the letter what they believe to be their four strongest arguments in support of the bill, essentially as follows:
1. Most people want assisted suicide for the terminally ill to be legalised (the democratic argument)
2. If we don’t legalise it in the UK people will go abroad to Dignitas, try to kill themselves here in an amateurish way, or turn to backstreet euthanasiasts.
3. The current law is not working
4. It’s better to help people who want to kill themselves to do so with ‘upfront safeguards’ here
I’ll come back to these arguments in a later post.
I believe they are all relatively easily refuted.
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. This appeared at http://pjsaunders.blogspot.com/2015/06/former-voluntary-euthanasia-society.html and is reprinted with permission.