Most Britons want assisted dying to be legalized. Why are members of Parliament too cowardly to do this? | Simon jenkins
WWhat are deputies for? The assisted dying bill, which will be debated in the House of Lords on Friday, lines up with previous divorce, abortion and sexuality laws in the canon of social liberalism. It’s an unfinished business from the 1960s.
The bill is also at the heart of how a free democracy should regulate matters of life and death, with deep meaning for millions of Britons at a time of their utmost pain and despair. An overwhelming majority in the UK now wants reform. Yet members of Parliament do not have the courage to give it to them.
As with its drug laws and inhumane prisons, Britain is quickly falling in the rankings of progressive nations. It is not because he is inherently illiberal. This is because his parliament is dysfunctional, no longer up to the task. It is a shame that the House of Commons rejects the issue of physician-assisted dying in an unelected chamber, which many members have inherited or bought their seats.
Irish women in need of abortions have had to travel abroad to escape religious fundamentalism. Likewise, terminally ill Britons must find £ 10,000 to travel to Switzerland if they wish to die in comfort and dignity. Anyone who helps them is liable to prosecution. It’s similar to the new Texas law that allows any private citizen to sue those who lead a patient to an abortion.
Of course, helping anyone who wants to end their own life raises sensitive regulatory questions. They are repeated ad nauseam whenever assisted dying is debated. It is difficult to kill yourself, especially in extreme cases of disability and pain, but helping a loved one can be just as difficult. It can also be an act of supreme love. Likewise, the help of a doctor can be a supreme act of consideration and care.
These are questions of desperate delicacy, unsuited to the truncheon of criminal law. The task of the legislator is not to raise his hands in horror. It is about interfering and regulating.
Public support for assisted dying is now overwhelming. In August, a YouGov opinion poll showed that three-quarters of Britons were in favor, evenly distributed among voters from all parties. Doctors, naturally upset by the issue of end-of-life care, have come to let parliament decide. Regulated medical assistance in dying is now practiced around the world, in Canada and Australia, the Netherlands and California, Switzerland and Spain.
British courts – faced with bad law, the indolence of parliament and the reluctance of juries to convict – have tried to get police and prosecutors out of the moral line. Formal guidance tries to take into account compassion and the lack of “encouragement”. But as Stephen Sedley, a former appellate court judge, wrote, a confusion between “helping to die” and “encouraging to die” is ethically chaotic. The same goes for the assessment of “compassion”. As Sedley points out, a loved one can hardly protest out of compassion for the sake of mercy when they are also warned to “not say anything” that could be used as evidence against them. The law is “both medieval and arguably illegal,” he says.
Every few years, the House of Lords proposes a suggested reform. Lord Joffe did it in 2003, Lord Falconer in 2014 and this week Baroness Meacher. His bill would allow those “whose suffering is beyond the reach of palliative care to die well and on their own terms, if they choose.” The safeguards against the misuse of such a law are quite strict – the imminent death and the approval of two independent doctors and a High Court judge – but the objectives are constant. Comfort and dignity.
It has been six decades since Britain decriminalized suicide. That assisted suicide should always be illegal is outdated and wrong. People near death should be treated as lifelongers, as sensitive human beings with the freedom to decide how to end their lives in the company of family and friends. They are not subject to an external authority. Their existence is not at the disposal of a state, let alone someone else’s concept of god. A church shouldn’t dictate the law.
The liberal reform is increasingly shaken by strident minorities, on the left and on the right of the politico-religious spectrum. Expressing a strong belief is believed to be a sign of group virility, usually coupled with a demand that other groups obey it. So if I declare abortion and physician-assisted dying to be murder, you are not free to disagree.
Reason does not refute this intolerance. The only answer is to assert the rights of majorities – in this case, to defend personal freedom and dignity in a free society. It is outside the purview of the House of Lords. That elected MPs and their parties are too cowardly to legislate what most Britons overwhelmingly want is worse than pathetic: it is undemocratic.