Attempts in the House of Lords both in 2006 (Joffe) and 2009 (Falconer) failed to legalise assisted suicide in this country. The medical profession (BMA and Royal Colleges), faith groups and disability groups also remain firmly opposed to a change in the law.
However we are now seeing fresh attempts to change the law in Scotland with Margo MacDonald’s End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill and we expect new attempts from Westminster after the election in May.
The greater immediate danger however is legalisation by stealth through the legal system.
The pro-euthanasia lobby have tried to make a case for ‘clarification’ of the law through the Debbie Purdy case. This led to a Supreme Court Judgement last summer requiring the Director of Public Prosecutions to produce prosecution guidance for assisted suicide. His draft guidance was published on 23 September 2009 and a consultation on it closed on 16 December. The definitive guidance is due any day now.
This guidance is expected to make it less likely that assisters who are ‘motivated wholly by compassion’ or are ‘loved ones’ will be prosecuted. In addition it is less likely that cases involving ‘victims’ who are terminally or chronically ill or disabled will end up in court.
If so the result will be that some of Britain’s most vulnerable people will have less legal protection than others and that it will be easier for family members and ‘friends’ with an interest in a person’s death to get away with subtle coercion to assisted suicide on the basis that they were acting compassionately.
The whole process could very easily lead to euthanasia by stealth. The general pattern we are now beginning to see (most clearly evidenced in the cases that have gone to the Dignitas clinic) involves police not investigating, the CPS not prosecuting, juries delivering perverse verdicts and judges giving light sentences.
All this has been fuelled by a toxic cocktail of emotive hard cases, media hype, celebrity endorsement and ill-informed public opinion.
This is exactly the same pattern that we hve seen in the Netherlands over the last 30years with judges initially either not prosecuting or bringing light sentences (eg the Postma case), a set of guidelines which if followed meant doctors could effectively escape prosecution, and a later law change giving statutory force to this earlier legal sanction.
The rates of assisted suicide and euthanasia (both voluntary and involuntary) were thereby already high in the Netherlands long before the law was eventually changed.
There is a real danger that we will see exactly the same process operating in the UK.