GOVERNMENT proposals that would allow MPs and peers to vote with
their consciences on changing the law on assisted suicide have
received a mixed reception.
Opinion is divided over the issue, but political observers
believe that there is a small but growing parliamentary majority
that supports the idea.
The decision to allow a free vote was announced last weekend,
when a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice described it as "an
issue of individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to
decide rather than government policy".
Under the Suicide Act 1961, helping a person to end his or her
life carries a maximum 14-year sentence. In 2010, however, the then
Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, issued guidelines
stating that anyone "acting out of compassion" was unlikely to be
charged. Since then, about 90 cases have been examined, and no one
has been prosecuted.
An assisted-dying Bill is already before the Lords. It would
permit two doctors to prescribe a dose of lethal drugs to a
terminally ill patient who had fewer than six months to live.
Such a plan would have enabled Diane Pretty, who suffered from
motor neurone disease, and took her case about ending her life to
the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to hasten her
death. But it would not have applied to Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer
from "locked-in" syndrome, as he was not terminally ill (Comment, 13 July
Peers will vote on it in the summer, and, if approved, it will
progress to the Commons before the end of the year.
The Minister for Care and Support in the Department of Health,
Norman Lamb, supportsthe idea. He told Sky News: "Can we really be
comfortable with asituation where people, acting out of compassion
for a loved one whois dying, are left uncertain asto whether they
will face prosecution?"
But the Care Not Killing alliance said: "There is nothing
liberal about wanting to end the lives of the terminally ill, the
disabled, and the elderly. What we should be discussing is how we
ensure equal access to good-quality medical care and life-saving
and preserving drugs."
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales has
produced a leaflet comprising a Q&A on assisted dying, entitled
"Sense and Nonsense". It highlights that "the Church teaches
that deliberately ending or helping to end someone else's life,
even if that person may have requested it, is wrong. Those who take
someone else's life take to themselves the power of life and death,
which ultimately belongs to God." The Tablet reports that
it is to be sent to every parish in the coming weeks.
Question of the weeK: Do you believe the law on assisted
dying should be relaxed?