It was one of the biggest pro-life victories of recent decades. In 2015, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly against legalising assisted suicide. The vote of 330 against 118 followed a highly effective campaign by opponents of the measure that even saw some MPs announcing that they had changed their minds during the debate.
A vote that conclusive would usually see off an issue for at least a generation. But the assisted suicide lobby is as active as ever. Last month, Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell announced his conversion to the cause and claimed the law could change during the current Parliament.
Mitchell said the proposal was for “someone who is within six months of the end of their life, with very strong safeguards, the decision being made by a High Court judge [and] two doctors. I think those limited proposals may command the support of Parliament in the next four years.”
The move comes after a string of unsuccessful legal challenges, most recently by Phil Newby, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 43. His request for assisted suicide was thrown out by the Court of Appeal earlier this year.
However, Sian Vasey, a disability rights campaigner, warned: “I think, quite honestly, it will extend massively and we are right to feel worried about it,” she told Sky News. “It’s a very discouraging idea that basically [you] go to the doctor and you can negotiate your death.”
Dr Theo Boer agrees. He worked for a decade on a panel that approved deaths by euthanasia in the Netherlands but has become a vocal critic of the practice. “Euthanasia has evolved from … a last resort in the case of a terminal illness to prevent a terrible death to euthanasia in a number of cases to prevent a terrible life. If you open it up to some categories of patients, other categories of patients will have a right to say, ‘Why not for me?’”
Do the lobbyists have any chance of winning this time? It’s certainly possible, especially as our society becomes ever more atomised and relativistic. If someone wishes to die, the argument goes, that’s their choice alone. Even more so if they’re trying to avoid pain.
Just as with abortion, advocates talk about individual choice as sovereign and try their best to sidestep arguments about the wider implications. “My body, my choice,” end of discussion. However, the movement against assisted suicide is stronger and better organised than the anti-abortion one. Also, the most vulnerable – the elderly and disabled – can speak out in a way the unborn cannot.
Opponents can also point to many examples of a “slippery slope” wherever the practice has been introduced, citing examples of child euthanasia in Belgium or people in Oregon requesting death to avoid being a “burden”.
“People who fear the slippery slope argument can be reassured … on this count: that once Parliament passes a very limited law, they would have to go back to Parliament to get that law changed,” Mitchell claims. But assisted suicide lobbyists know that their claims about a “limited law” have previously failed to convince. Could it be their Achilles heel once more?
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