Lord Falconer’s safeguards will not make assisted suicide any safer

Lord Falconer: his commission concludes that 'the most important safeguard in any assisted dying regime would lie in the relationship between the patient and their doctors' (PA photo)

We’ve waited a year for Lord Falconer’s “independent commission” on assisted dying to report its conclusions, but hardly with bated breath. Unsurprisingly Falconer and friends, the majority of whom are advocates of assisted suicide, recommend that we change the law in favour of assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

A common argument to support a change in the law has been the horrors of the suicide centre Dignitas and the concept of Britons dying alone and abroad because their loved ones are too petrified to accompany them.

Indeed, Falconer conceded in the Daily Telegraph that his commission visited Dignitas and they did not like what they saw.

Unsurprisingly, then, the commission has determined that it is “health and social care professionals who have the knowledge, skills and training structures that would be needed to implement a safeguarded system to permit assisted dying in the UK”.

Despite the vast majority of British doctors wanting nothing to do with “assisted dying” this commission has insisted that this opposition is not an obstacle to legalising physician-assisted suicide.

The commission explains that the medical profession’s involvement will make the practice safer, but the real concern is that it will make it prettier.

Proponents of assisted suicide are uncomfortable with Dignitas precisely because it exposes the practice of “assisted dying” for the grubby business that it is. Be it death-by-appointment in a Zurich flat or death-by-appointment in an NHS ward, there’s no moral difference. But campaigners are sufficiently savvy to see that even a witch trial could become morally acceptable and scientifically compelling in the eyes of society, providing it involved an “open-minded” and “compassionate” doctor, our pillars of social respectability.

Ethical questions aside, the commission’s recommendations for physician-assisted suicide raise serious questions for public safety.

A conscientious objection clause as recommended by Falconer will not solve the problem that there are only a small minority of British doctors who are willing to do this. The commission concludes that “the most important safeguard in any assisted dying regime would lie in the relationship between the patient and their doctors”.

But how many of us have long-standing and close relationships with our doctors? I would urge those of you who are worried about an “assisted dying” law to consult the website of the Oregon Public Health Division.

The US state of Oregon has permitted physician-assisted suicide since 1998. The annual reports on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act are becoming increasingly slim but the earliest reports indicate that in 1998, for instance, six of the 16 people who ended their lives using physician-assisted suicide “had to approach more than one physician before finding one that would start the prescription process”.

If you continue to trawl through the reports before 2005, you will see that a significant number of applicants were being turned down by the first physician they approached and some are recorded as asking two or three physicians before they were prescribed the lethal dosage. Of the 64 lethal prescriptions written in 2005, one doctor wrote eight prescriptions, a notable proportion.

After 2005 the Oregon reports no longer record this information so it is difficult to know what the state of play is now. But, while the Falconer commission concedes that a doctor’s knowledge of their patients would be an important safeguard against coercion, it is so blinkered that it cannot see that Britons would “shop around” for a compliant doctor. The chances of this doctor then forming a meaningful relationship with a complete stranger who is contemplating suicide is ludicrous.

Those of faith and those of none should be seriously worried about the naivety of cheerleaders for a physician-assisted suicide law in this country.

Libertarians should be concerned that in a Falconer fantasy-land the icy claw of the state will extend and beckon to those who qualify for death and the Left should shudder because obsession with personal autonomy is trashing the concept of society.

And if you are completely apolitical then you should still be concerned that the definition of the word “independent” has apparently reversed overnight.