The very wording of the Falconer Bill reveals its implications for the vulnerable

by Oxford Students for Life

About the author: A former OSFL committee member, Greg Jackson is currently studying for an MA in Ethics.

For those of you who have not yet had a chance to read Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, here are some of its key phrases.

To begin with ‘assisted dying’: The phrase is a euphemistic attempt to make it seem as if what is here described is a part of the practice of palliative medicine. All it really amounts to is assisted suicide under certain conditions – conditions that we may fear will expand in the future, perhaps without limit.

Much of the Bill’s wording, when looked at closely, gives cause for real concern.

 

a person is terminally ill if that person –

(a) has been diagnosed by a registered medical practitioner as having an inevitably progressive condition which cannot be reversed by treatment (‘a terminal illness’); and

(b) as a consequence of that terminal illness, is reasonably expected to die within six months. 2 (1)

As a previous blogpost explained, this is an unworkably vague criterion. But in any case, why is the cut-off at six months? Why is it only these people that are to be given lawful assistance in ending their own lives? This is surely discriminatory. The law, in effect, is putting these people in a category which is not worth protecting, and therefore is failing to recognise the equal worth of such people. The Assisted Dying Bill, were it to succeed, would be telling people in this category that society has given up on them; that they are no longer valued enough for the law to be concerned with their protection to the extent that it is concerned with others’. At the time when they need hope more than ever, the law is telling them that their case is hopeless.

‘[the [patient’s decision must have] been reached voluntarily…without coercion or duress.’

3 (3) (c)

One may wonder how such a thing could ever be accurately determined. After all, ‘coercion and duress’ can be extremely subtle forces, difficult to detect. We cannot simply rely upon the patient’s word that he or she is not under coercion or duress. Financial and familial pressures can exert a powerful influence on all of us, but perhaps even more so on the sick and the dying, and such pressures can remain virtually impossible to detect. Surely some terminally ill people will end up making this decision against their own will.

 

‘…the attending doctor and the independent doctor must be satisfied that the person making it has been fully informed of the palliative, hospice and other care which is available to that person.’

2 (4)

Here as elsewhere, we see the enormous trust that the Bill places in the medical profession. It relies upon the medical profession policing itself. Who else, after all, is going to determine whether a patient kills themselves in accordance with the criteria set out in the Bill? While we can assume that the majority of medical professionals are upright and conscientious individuals, can we trust that each and every medical professional will fully inform a patient of other options?

Furthermore, the Bill undermines the grounds upon which our ordinary trust in the medical profession is based. People look to doctors for cure and care, and they entrust themselves to them in the confidence that doctors are dedicated to those ends. But if doctors are not dedicated to these ends then a relationship of trust with them is no longer possible.

 

The attending doctor of a person who has made a valid declaration may prescribe medicines for that person to enable that person to end their own life.

4 (1)

The Bill refers to ‘medicine’ used to end one’s life. But this is a clear abuse of the term – ‘medicine’ being, of its nature, directed towards treatment and healing. In this case the lethal drug is not directed towards treatment and healing, but rather towards the death of the patient.

‘the attending doctor and the independent doctor, having separately examined the person and the person’s medical records and each acting independently of the other, must be satisfied that the person…has a clear and settled intention to end their own life which has been reached voluntarily’. 3 (3) (c)

The Bill makes no requirement whatsoever that the person who seeks to end their own life need undergo psychological assessment – which is not a small matter. There is no procedure to assess whether or not the patient is suffering from depression or some other psychological condition that will affect their decision-making capacity. All that is necessary is that two physicians determine that the patient ‘has the capacity to make the decision to end their own life’, and one might legitimately wonder how that might be determined as well. Again, the Bill places an awful lot of trust on the medical profession to police itself in these matters, yet as said, this Bill undermines the very foundations of that trust.

 

‘The Secretary of State may issue one or more codes of practice’.
8 (1)

And ‘the Secretary of State may specify in regulations’ what experience a doctor needs (3 (7)); ‘The Secretary of State may by regulations specify’ how the ‘medicines’ are to be administered (4 (7)); ‘the Secretary of State shall consult such persons as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate’ (8 (2)). A lot of the Bill’s implications are left to unknown circumstances.

 

Much has been made of the safeguards in the Bill, yet in addition to the issues that we have noted, legislation that permits assisted dying can never have adequate safeguards because the essence of such legislation is to make respect for the lives of the dying dependent upon the strength of their will to survive. The Bill represents society losing hope. And it detracts our efforts away from palliative care, a holistic solution which recognises the true value of the sick and the dying.

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You can still email peers and ask them to oppose this dangerous Bill.

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