Saturday, 5 December 2009

The future of life on earth

Today two of my grandchildren, aged 5 and 4, are going on their first public demonstration in London, to do with climate change. So look out for them on the TV reports, with their mum, all wearing blue wigs, I'm told! And it's fair enough it seems to me. It will be their world that really suffers if we don't manage to curb our rampant consumerism. It's a pity, though not surprising, that the East Anglia University email leaks have proved that scientists are not always so objective and 'factual' as Prof Nutt and his supporters had us believe. Jonathan Sachs on the other hand did another good Thought for the Day on Friday, suggesting among other things we reduced our consumption by taking one day a week off. May not be an original idea, but it has supreme credentials. God knows what's best for the world.

As promised here is the letter I wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions about assisted suicide, or more specifically about his interim guidelines. I very much hope that there is no back-door alteration of the law as it stands. That, it seems to me, would be undermining the primacy of Parliament.

Assisted Suicide Policy Team
Crown Prosecution Service Headquarters - 6th floor
50 Ludgate Hill

Dear Mr Starmer

I’d like to respond to your Interim policy for prosecutors in respect of cases of assisted suicide. Before enclosing my replies to the questionnaire, I have some important preliminary points to make, which I hope will bear as much weight as my proforma answers.

First, I suffer from Primary Lateral Sclerosis, an uncommon and protracted form of Motor Neurone Disease. This means I come into all three categories of ‘a terminal illness, a severe and incurable disability and a severe degenerative physical condition’ from which there is, at present, 'no possibility of recovery'. Although I am not convinced that this gives me a peculiar right to be listened to, it does at least mean that I am among those whom this redefinition of the law is intended to benefit.

Secondly, it seems to me that the Law Lords, from the best of motives, have put you in the invidious position of effectively redefining the law, which is not your role. Whatever policy guidelines you enunciate ought, I believe, to define the present law as it stands and not in fact redefine it in such a way to change its original intention - which would be to create a new law. I realise that what you are seeking to do is to define what ‘public interest’ is in such cases, but I think you have been set an impossible task in doing that without changing the law.

Thirdly, there is a danger, I feel, that in attempting to deal with a hard case we will end up with bad law. There is no doubt that end of life decisions for people like Debbie Purdy and myself are hard cases. But those are decisions for us to wrestle with. The role of this law, as I understand it, is to protect the vulnerable. Any erosion of this protection would be an undermining of the law. It seems to me the guidelines especially run into this danger by specifying victims with terminal illness, permanent disability or degenerative conditions as public interest factors against prosecution, while avoiding it well in specifying minority and special needs as factors in favour. Would it not be better to leave the absence of terminal illness, disability and degenerative conditions in the factors in favour alone, rather than give the appearance of inviting people to assist the suicide of people with those conditions?

Fourthly, I am concerned by the use of ‘compassion’ as a mitigating factor. My reservation is not with the concept, but with the problem of definition. Although it’s a profoundly noble virtue (‘suffering with’), it can easily be debased to mean ‘feeling sorry for’ and even ‘not being able to bear watching any longer’. ‘I acted wholly out of compassion,’ seems to me too easy a defence, which is very hard to disprove. Although it will be probably be genuine in nine cases out of ten, I can see it being used as a pretext by the unscrupulous abuser.

Fifthly, whilst I can see the logic of the close long-term relationship of the suspect to the victim being a mitigating factor against prosecution, most abuse, I believe, takes place within domestic contexts, where it is never witnessed. Again the overriding need for the law to protect the most vulnerable is in danger of being compromised. (Incidentally I should have thought that there is some internal inconsistency between factor 7 for and factor 6 against, as a spouse or partner will normally benefit financially.)

So far I realise I have been negative in my comments, but as my completed questionnaire shows I’m not totally so! I agree with some of the factors against, and all for. For instance, I strongly agree that any business or campaign with the aim of promoting euthanasia should know it runs the risk of prosecution if it actively involves itself in ending an individual’s life. I am sure no one is more aware than yourself of the minefield you’ve been instructed to walk through. I must say that I have admired the way that you and your predecessors have handled this painful issue. Personally I am sorry that your judicious discretion is not being left intact. I very much hope that the deterrent effect of the law as it stands is not diluted. I believe that it’s important that we signal the ultimate value of life in every way possible. I wish you well as you work out the final guidelines.

Yours sincerely

1 comment:

  1. I see there is another appeal to our "Supreme Court" (I only recognise one and it isn't earthly), claiming that the decision to ask the DPP to set down guide-lines on how and when he will decide to prosecute, is invalid; what if we're back to square one?,