Thursday, 5 January 2012

Lord Falconer's Choice Illusion

So the Falconer "commission" has rebranded itself as a "panel of legal and medical experts" and confessed to being funded by and packed with assisted suicide supporters. In fact, the MP involved said, there was no one on the panel previously opposed to it. 

The fundamental issue seems to me to be a matter of choice, but it's not a matter of individuals choosing how they want to die. Rather it's a matter of us deciding what sort of society we want to live in.

This is the article I'd hoped would be published in a national paper, but wasn't in the event.

"Last year, in the midst of austerity and recession, the BBC’s ‘Children in Need’ raised a record £26,332,334 by the end of a single evening.  Today the self-styled Commission on Assisted Dying under the chairmanship of Lord Falconer, champion of the legalization of assisted suicide in England and Wales, will be presenting their conclusions.  Considering the ‘commission’ is funded by and predominantly made up of similarly-minded people, it’s not been hard to predict what some of those conclusions might have been.  They’ll be couched in reasonable and balanced terms no doubt, and they’ll hardly be novel.  However, on the principle that if you keep repeating something enough times, it will eventually be believed, they’ll serve their purpose. 

"One of the main themes, let me guess, will be that of freedom of choice.  The argument runs something like this: since 1961 suicide has ceased to be a crime.  Terminally ill people, for example with Motor Neurone Disease or Locked-in Syndrome, reach a point when they are unable to take their own lives.  Thus they are deprived of a civil right and unfairly discriminated against.  They, it is said, of all people might well want to end their lives - and the law as it stands means they can’t, because the same Suicide Act (amended 2009) goes on to state: “A person (“D”) commits an offence if (a) D does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person, and (b) D’s act was intended to encourage or assist suicide or an attempt at suicide”.  It does also leave the jury discretion to convict or not, and only permits proceedings “by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions” - which explains the minimal convictions under the Act in 50 years.

"If someone like myself should wish to leave our disease behind, why should we not say so and why should we not be assisted, without the fear of our assistants’ facing prosecution?  Surely it’s my life and my choice? 

"In discussions people have said to me, “Suicide’s been legalized.  That means it’s my right to take my life.”  The wording of the Act does not exactly express that meaning: “The rule of law whereby it is a criminal act for a person to commit suicide is hereby abrogated.”  To say that the state will not regard a suicidal person, whether successful or unsuccessful, as a criminal, is not the same as saying that the state sanctions or encourages suicide.  In fact the wording of the 2009 amendment was widened in order to cover internet sites promoting suicide, implying that the state’s inclination is to discourage suicide.  Mr Justice Baker’s judgement in the recent case of patient ‘M’ summed the principle up: “The factor which does carry substantial weight, in my judgement, is the preservation of life. Although not an absolute rule, the law regards the preservation of life as a fundamental principle.”

"The question is whether personal choice can trump the preservation of life.  It is, of course, not true that we have unfettered freedom of choice.  For example, we are not free to drive on the right or without a seat belt, because the state does not want us to kill either ourselves or each other.  Similarly, where we may smoke is restricted.  Even what we may say and write is limited.  There are good reasons for such things, but the point is choice is not an inherent right.  Autonomy, the oft-touted synonym for choice, literally means “having one’s own laws”.  That is incompatible with being part of a larger society.  Therein lies the flaw in arguing for legislation which allows for a variety of practice in the taking of life, or assisting to die.  Once you say that it’s possible to decide your own personal laws in matters of life and death you have no fundamental ground to say a particular action is unacceptable.  It will all depend on circumstance and motive – and that is shifting sand.  Even ‘compassion’ is an elusive and subjective motive.  You may set apparently water-tight perameters, but they also will shift.

"To abandon the preservation of life as a fundamental principle of our society’s laws, in the name of personal choice, would be to retreat from centuries of hard-won progress.  It was, after all, only in 1969 that Parliament voted to abolish the state taking life.  During the debate on the abolition of hanging, Duncan Sandys led the opposition to the vote, arguing that “We have no right to assume that the firmly held views of the overwhelming majority of the British people are unworthy and misguided.”  His view was shared neither by the Commons nor the Lords, and so even the life of the murderer was protected.  (It will be interesting to see whether Sandys’ contention about public opinion, which seems predominantly to favour euthanasia, will be echoed by the ‘commission’.)

"So what will society say to me when I get near the end of my MND – if it’s not to allow someone to top me when I’ve had enough?  I hope it will say, “We will see you through this.  We will give you the best quality of life that’s possible.  We will provide all the palliative care that you need, including supporting your carers.  We will do everything possible to ease your symptoms and to control your pain.”  And I would say, “Please keep me comfortable.  If the pain relief should shorten my life by hours or days, that’s all right.  You’re only doing your job.  And when I should die, just let me be.” 

"Is it a Utopian ideal?  In fact it’s the legal situation now.  But aren’t there doctors out there who’ll betray one’s trust?  Aren’t there trusts and commissioning consortia who will try to trim their care costs?  There are horror stories of the neglect of the elderly in hospitals, after all.  (It’s worth pondering whether one factor beneath the horror stories is the progressive devaluing of the dependent person?)  Well, there are risks, but the society which firmly holds the preservation of life as a fundamental principle will be on the lookout for such breaches and, most importantly, put its resources where its principle is.  And the risks are small beside the risk of abandoning the principle that life is precious above all else. 

"‘Children in Need’ projected on our TV screens the courage and beauty of disabled, dependent and often dying children.  It showed us the incredible endurance and compassion of those who care for them.  There can be no question as to their worth and of the value of enhancing or at least ameliorating their lives.  We know it's right.  The society which cherishes life, even at its most tenuous, is far preferable to one which admits the principle that some lives are disposable.  'Children in Need' or the 'Commission'?  I know which vision I prefer."

from Children in Need website

I know the so-called experts are not calling for euthanasia, but only for assisted suicide of mentally competent adults, but my point is that once the preservation of life is breached as a foundational principle of law and life-taking is permitted a Rubicon will have been crossed, and we shouldn't be fooled that it's the end of the road for the advocates of euthanasia.


  1. well done Michael - a great post and keep up the great work! With best regards, Robert from Care Not Killing

  2. Thanks, Robert. And thank you to Care not Killing for speaking clearly and rationally.

  3. Well reasoned and balanced. If the Falconer commission holds sway it demeans 'choice', not enhances choice. Neither is this debate about 'believers' or 'non believers' - it is about upholding life and upholding the best in palliative care that good will and money can buy.

  4. Uncle M,

    Could I give a shameless plug for an event that we are running called 'Life Matters' in Streatham on 29th January at 6.30pm. Dr Alex Bunn, GP and Southern Leader of the Christian Medical Fellowship Student Team, will be thinking through a Christian response to Euthanasia. If any of your readers are based in London, they would be welcome to come. More details here:

    Thank you. :)

    1. Of course you may, Alan, and I'd encourage anyone to go.