Will Parliament assist assisted dying?

On Monday the Conservative MP Richard Ottaway will give a talk at his party conference entitled "Last rights: How close is Parliament to legalising assisted dying?"

The short answer is, not very.

The private members bill proposed in the Lords by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, is unlikely to be debated before the new year, which means it has scant chance of clearing the Lords, and still less of being debated in the Commons.

A series of attempts to change the law by the Labour peer, Lord Joffe have also failed to make much progress through the parliamentary machine.

In March 2012, Mr Ottaway, a long standing campaigner for a change in the law, led a Commons debate on a motion to enshrine in law guidelines which allowed the Director of Public Prosecutions discretion to judge whether someone had acted maliciously or out of compassion in assisting a suicide.

Campaigners for right to die

Medical assistance to end life
  • The late Tony Nicklinson was paralysed from the neck down after suffering a stroke while on a business trip to Athens in 2005. After losing his High Court battle, he refused food and died, aged 58, a week later. His widow is continuing his fight.
  • Paul Lamb, 58, was paralysed from the neck down after a car accident in 1990. He says he endures pain every single day and does not want to keep living - but he has no way out.
  • The anonymous man - or "Martin" - suffered a massive stroke in August 2008, leaving him unable to speak and virtually unable to move. The 48-year-old, who cannot be named for legal reasons, says his life is undignified, distressing and intolerable.

That move was opposed by the Government, and wasn't agreed by MPs.

Now, with the Falconer Bill seemingly becalmed, he's attempting to keep up the pressure for change, and will use his Conference fringe meeting to discuss what he regards as the shortcomings of the current law.

"Assisted dying is not about forcing death," he said.

"It is about giving a choice to patients suffering unbearably and whose needs cannot be met by palliative care.

"A sensible and compassionate law that puts in all the necessary safeguards to ensure that there is no undue influence on the patient is, to me, a basic right for any civilised society.

"Hundreds of British citizens who can afford the exorbitant costs are flying to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to put an end to their suffering.

"Hundreds more are taking matters into their own hands or taking the risk of having their loved ones prosecuted for assisting them.

With polls showing us that 80 per cent of the British public want to legalise assisted dying, it's high time Parliament acted."

The debate in March 2012 produced some very raw and harrowing speeches, with MPs recalling the suicide of parents and death of brothers.

Mr Ottaway ran into strong reservations and objections from MPs across all parties - with many arguing that the underlying issue was the legalisation of euthanasia.

This was the Lib Dem, John Pugh: "One cannot easily argue for euthanasia for the terminally ill and not, at the same time, for euthanasia for those who are permanently suffering.

"It is the character and the extent of the suffering and indignity that counts, not where it is placed in someone's life cycle.

"Thus, free consent plus great suffering would, on the face of it, appear to make a minimum case for a civilised version of euthanasia.

"However, there is a sting in the tail.

"If we allow euthanasia for those who are either in great pain or unwilling to face the probability of great pain, why should those who are, for whatever reason, incapable of giving consent be denied mercy if they are thought to endure exactly parallel circumstances?

"In other words, why privilege those who are compos mentis—those fortunate enough to have their wits about them? Thus, by force of argument, one moves from being unsure about whether consent is a sufficient condition to being unsure about whether it is a necessary condition."

That discussion ended with MPs supporting the DPP's guidelines on assisted suicide, but not calling for them to be put into law.

And it certainly didn't suggest that there is a clear Commons majority for outright legalisation.

I suppose it is possible someone might try and amend a suitable bill - given the level of opposition, introducing a new clause at Report Stage (where it would have priority for discussion) would seem the most likely way of continuing the debate, but there isn't an obvious bill to attach such an amendment to.

Failing that, supporters of assisted dying must hope one of their number wins a high place in next year's Private Members Bill ballot.

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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