Why Parliament should reject the assisted dying Bill

This Friday, the House of Commons will debate a bill to legalised assisted suicide. If the Law is passed, doctors will be able to prescribe lethal drugs to enable patients to take their own lives. This major ethical decision has come in effectively under the radar without much media attention.

There is in fact more than one attempt to introduce some form of assisted suicide. Lord Falconer has been working to introduce legislation through the House of Lords. The Bill that will be debated this Friday is being introduced as a Private Member’s Bill by back bench MP, Rob Marris. The Bill would enable someone who is terminally ill with a prognosis of six months or less to live to self-administer medication to end their life. Before they could do this, a High Court Judge and two doctors would need to be satisfied that they were of sound mind and had been informed of the alternatives.[1]

This bill is itself fairly restrictive in comparison to what some campaigners are asking for.

“The Bill would not allow euthanasia, because it does not allow anyone other than the patient to administer life-ending medication. Nor would it allow assistance for a person with a non-terminal disability. Nor assistance for a patient with dementia – because dementia is not a terminal illness, and a patient with later stage dementia would not pass the ‘of sound mind’ test.”[2]

However, it still is very clearly and definitely asking for a significant change in how we as a society, legally view death, suicide and medical treatment. This is so, not least because of the nature of the underling argument for its introduction. In his artyicle on Labout List, Marris says that the current law is a mess.

“At present the law denies dying people the choice of a safe, legal assisted death, whilst turning a blind eye to home suicides, and to technically illegal actions by doctors, and to Dignitas deaths.”[3]

Now, we might want to take issue with that. Such a statement fails to make careful distinctions between what a law states and how it is enforced and about the different purposes for laws. Indeed, one might argue that a Law which clearly states a moral position but allows for some charity and flexibility in how it is applied may even be a good thing.

However, whilst Marris raises these arguments for a new law, his starting point and underlying reason is this.

“I value life, and I do understand that some people believe very deeply that ending one’s own life is always wrong. Nevertheless, the depth and sincerity of their belief should not mean that they deny choice to those of us who do not share their beliefs.”[4]

It is good to hear him state that he values life and his understanding for people who disagree with him. I am thankful that in a world of hyperbole and verbal bullying of opponents that he is choosing to debate the issues in a respectful tone.

However, if he values life than I am afraid that he is deeply mistaken in his view and approach. Marris is making a pluralist argument that my moral views should not prevent him from holding and acting on his moral views. The problem is that in every society including our own, there are many occasions when we do and need to do exactly what he is saying we should not do. I understand that he is a ne w MP but over time, he is going to discover that this is frequently the case.

In recent years, Parliament has voted to stop those who wanted to use military intervention against the Syrian regime from doing so. Many people would have been deeply convinced of the moral case for intervention just as many (including myself) were not convinced of the case. Previous Labour Governments have enacted laws to prevent people who wanted to from sitting in smoke filled pubs or hunting foxes with hounds.   For many years, we have restricted the speed at which people can drive their cars and which side of the road they drive on (and there’s another case where the enforcement is not always consistent).

We restrict freedom of choice because we understand that whilst choice is a great thing to have, it is not the ultimate value. Even governments committed to liberal free market economics have inevitably accepted that some boundaries should be in place. What is more, Marris’s own legislation would continue to accept that some limitations should be in place. Why should I be restricted to an arbitrary six months window? What about the patient who has another 1, 2, 5 years ahead of them but those years will be increasingly difficult and painful? Why is the “Alzheimers” sufferer excluded? They may not be “of sound mind” in the later stages but what happens if they have made an advanced directive. So assuming that this is not intended to be the start of a gradually widening of the permission, Rob Marris still chooses to restrict the choice and (under his understanding though not mine), dignity of many people.

We restrict freedom because we know that our decisions are not made in isolation. They impact others for good or ill. You should not break the speed limit because it will put other road users and pedestrians at risk. You should not smoke in a pub because of the risk that passive smoking brings to others who are drinking. You should not hunt with hounds because our society as a whole now regards the fear and pain caused to the fox as cruel and morally wrong.

Now these examples are all interesting because in the first one there’s clear risk to other people and in the last we have chosen to place some value on how animals are treated but in the middle example, you could easily argue that the other person has the choice not to drink in that pub. It’s not just about immediate life and death but about the respect and dignity that our society expects us to show each other. The law represents a value that our culture esteems. You might even say that we have placed “good manners” over freedom of choice!

This is important because the question about assisted suicide is about whom else is affected. Well first of all, suicide does affect others including relatives and close friends. Secondly, the doctors and High Court Judges who have to consider the decision will be affected too. Now, it is one thing to say that a doctor can have an opt-out conscience clause but presumably the High Court Judge does not. What about the Judge who believes that suicide is wrong? Won’t that affect his ability to make a ruling? Would you have to find a judge who already agrees with this law? And whilst existing judges and doctors may have the protection of a conscience clause what about people entering those professions in the future. Would my view on assisted dying affect the likelihood of me being appointed as a judge? Then there are the others who are involved in the process who are less visible in the process. Will their consciences be protected. What about the person helping to dispense drugs from the hospital pharmacy? Can they opt out if they know what the drugs are going to be used for? Will they know? What about the man or woman working on the production life for the drugs company?

Then there is the doctor who is treating the patient. Yes, they have the conscience clause meaning they can refuse to prescribe the lethal drugs. However, conscience is a much bigger thing than just handing out the pills or administering the injection.  The conscience issue will go right back to the setting out of options.  Is this doctor going to be able to refuse to tell the patient that the suicide option exists or will that be seen as withholding information?  Can they explain to a patient why they think that the suicide option is wrong?  Again, will their bias be seen to have affected how they set out the options?

Then there’s the wider effect on society. As we noted in our previous article, permitting assisted suicide, even in a restricted form begins to substantially transform our understanding of life and death and therefore the values we uphold. Legislation like this has a particularly important role in a country where there isn’t a written constitution.

This leads us to another question. Where do we get our values from? Do we just get them from the majority or from an elite group of politicians and judges? What happens when the majority choose to value things that are unpleasant, nasty and cruel? We have seen around the world how societies and communities can very quickly become cruel and intolerant.

As a Christian I believe that there are objective values that we should hold. I believe that we can know what goodness is because there is a good God. As we have repeatedly seen on faithroots, this God is loving and gracious. This God is sovereign and in control of history and our individual lives. This God is not at a distance but has stepped into time and space in the person of Jesus who experienced pain, suffering and death on our behalf.

I believe that we get these values not by majority vote but because the good God who has made us and loves us has chosen to reveal to us what it means to be good, kind, loving and merciful, what it means to be human. He does this in the Bible.

I will be praying this week and especially on Friday that our MPs will be humble enough to listen to what God says.

[1] See, Rob Marris, Why I introduced the Assisted Dying Bill (http://labourlist.org/2015/09/why-i-introduced-the-assisted-dying-bill acced 07/09/2015).

[2] Marris, Why I introduced the Assisted Dying Bill.

[3] Marris, Why I introduced the Assisted Dying Bill.

[4] Marris, Why I introduced the Assisted Dying Bill.