Monday, 14 September 2015

Assisted Dying

Parliament has overwhelmingly rejected amending the bill, are they really this out of touch with the public?

Two principles; First, that the criminal law should rarely [if ever] be used against those who compassionately assist a loved one to die at their request - so long as that person had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to end their life. Second that very strong safeguards are needed to protect those who might be pressurised [in any number of ways] into taking their own lives: those who encourage the death of the vulnerable should feel the full force of the law.

However, over the years it has become increasingly clear that there are two inherent limitations in the guidelines. The first is that although those who have reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to end their lives can now be confident of the compassionate assistance of loved ones without automatically exposing them to the criminal law, the only assistance they can be provided with is the amateur help of those nearest and dearest.

The second inherent limitation in the guidelines goes to the heart of the argument advanced by those who do not want any change in the law. They rightly point to the risk that some people might be pressurised or encouraged to take their own lives by those who do not have their best interests at heart; and argue the blanket criminalisation of assisted suicide, subject to the operation of the guidelines, offers the best protection against abuse.

The safeguards in the Assisted Dying Bill proposed by Rob Marris MP are certainly strong and robust. A person may only be provided with assistance to end his or her life if a High Court judge sitting in the Family Division, by order confirms that he or she is satisfied that the person has a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to end his or her own life. An order can only be made if the person in question has made a declaration about their wish to end their life, which must be counter-signed by a witness who must not be a relative or a person directly involved in the person's care or treatment. And only those diagnosed by a registered medical practitioner as having a terminal illness and less than six months' life expectancy may apply to the High Court.

So, in the end, the question before Parliament last Friday was whether we have got the balance right under the current law. At the moment, those with a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to end their lives can receive assistance to commit suicide, but only the amateur assistance of loved ones unless they have the means and physical ability to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland. Professional medical assistance so that they can die with dignity and in peace at home is denied.

Parliament had the opportunity to re-balance the law in this difficult and sensitive area and they failed.

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