I listened to the end of the Lords' debate on the Falconer amendment last night (in fact I watched on line). In the event it was defeated by 194 to 141 - a bigger majority than when Lord Joffe's Bill was debated in 2006. To be honest, I heard the result with mixed emotions: mainly relief that a bad piece of legislation hasn't gone any further, but also sadness for Debbie Purdy who had great hopes personally that she could be free from concern for Omar, her husband, if she ever went to Zurich to die. From what Lord Falconer said in his summing up I think she can be free of that as it is: ' The current situation is that the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) has made it clear that he will not seek out these cases to investigate. If the cases come before him, he will ensure that they are properly investigated and, as long as he is satisfied that there is good motivation, he will not prosecute.' I hope she believes him, because I have no doubt about her good motivation, much as I regret where she feels it leads.
However, I trust that this is not the end of the discussion. Oddly enough, I think an article in Monday's Independent by Lord Lester, one of the amendment's supporters, might be a good place to start again. In it he said, 'Like many others, I believe that we need a legal framework which would allow doctors and nurses to be able lawfully to treat terminally ill patients to relieve their suffering as well as pain, even though it would be a virtual certainty that the treatment would shorten their lives.' To which I would say, 'I agree - depending on what you mean exactly.' For example, what do you mean by suffering? A large element in suffering can be fear - and a lot of fear associated with dying can be unnecessary on a purely physical level. Not all 'suffering' is negative. For example, unresolved conflicts can greatly disturb a terminally ill person - but the remedy for them is not premature death but positive resolution. The 'legal protection' we need is both for the carers and the cared for. It's there at the moment, imperfectly but effectively. Doctors fear litigation if in good faith they administer pain relief which has the effect of shortening life; patients fear being precipitated into death instead of receiving potential life-prolonging treatment. There's work to be done.
There's one other caution, I think, we need to make and that is, some things go beyond laws. I seem to remember that was a point Michael Sandel made in his last Reith lecture. You can tinker with laws till you're blue, or red, in the face; but unless we have a shared attitude in society, not just on issues, but about the sort of society we want, i.e. the underlying values we believe in, we are on to a loser. That's the real agenda.