Controversial Assisted Suicide Bill Advances in British Parliament

By Abigail Wilkinson | July 22, 2014 | 3:31 PM EDT

Lord Charles Falconer of Thoroton (UK Parliament)

( A controversial "assisted dying" bill currently being considered in the British Parliament received its second reading in the House of Lords last Friday.

The bill would “enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life.”

The bill must be passed by both the House of Lords and the House of Commons before it can be made into law by Royal Assent.

“For a minority of people dying, no matter how good the end-of-life care, they do not want to go on struggling. The principle of this bill is that those who are terminally ill should have choice over how they die, but subject to effective safeguards which prevent pressure and abuse," Lord Charles Falconer, a member of the Labour Party and former Lord Chancellor, said during Friday’s debate.

"It would not lead to more deaths but less suffering," he said.

But Baroness Jane Campbell, a disability rights advocate who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as an infant, called Falconer’s bill “a runaway freight train” that would just add to the burdens facing the disabled.

During Friday’s debate, Baroness Campbell commented from her own personal experience.

“This bill is about me. I did not ask for it. I did not want it, but it is about me nevertheless. Before anyone disputes this, imagine this is already law and I ask for assistance to die. Do you think, my lordships, that I will be refused? No. You can be sure there were will be doctors and lawyers willing to support my right to die. Sadly, many would put their energies into that rather than improving my situation and getting me to change my mind,” she said.

“This bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because in periods of greatest difficulty I know I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges life holds for me. But it is not just about me. My story is echoed by the majority of disabled and terminally ill people in Britain today.”

Both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under current U.K. law. Under the Suicide Act of 1961, assisting in another’s suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Baroness Jane Campbell (YouTube)

“The bill does rather little to assist the dying. That noble purpose would require legislation that entitles all of us, in our dying months, weeks and days, to the necessary help, care and pain relief whether or not we are competent to choose,” said Baroness Onora O’Neill, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The British Medical Association (BMA) staunchly opposes the passing of legislation that would legalize ‘assisted dying,’ pointing out that “for most patients, effective and high quality palliative care can effectively alleviate distressing symptoms associated with the dying process and allay patients’ fears” without the need to hasten their demise.

BMA’s current policy:

  • “Opposes all forms of assisted dying;
  • Supports the current legal framework, which allows compassionate and ethical care for the dying; and
  • Supports the establishment of a comprehensive, high-quality palliative care service, available to all, to enable patients to die with dignity.”

Despite opposition from Britain’s medical establishment, this latest attempt to legalize assisted suicide has received strong support from multiple organizations, including the British Humanist Association, and the Campaign for Dignity in Dying.

According to a survey by YouGov taken in May, 73 percent of adults in Great Britain believe that the Falconer bill should become law. In another poll by ComRes published Saturday, 73 percent also agreed that the Falconer bill should be passed.

However, once they were informed about the BMA’s arguments against “assisted dying’’ and considered the practical implications, including the possibility that the terminally ill would be pressured to end their lives to avoid being a ‘burden’ or choose to die because of financial concerns, 42 percent changed their minds.

The BMA also objects to assisted suicide because it is “contrary to the ethics of clinical practice” and “could weaken society’s prohibition on killing and undermine the safeguards against non-voluntary euthanasia.”

These objections were echoed Portsmouth's Catholic bishop, the Rev. Philip Egan, who delivered a message last week urging the clergy and people of his diocese to resist the Falconer bill.

“Legalising assisted suicide would lead to a catastrophic collapse of respect for the infinite value of each human life and every human person, no matter how weak, vulnerable, and ‘useless,’” the bishop said.