By Professor Philip Stenning
The public debate over assisted suicide took a new turn recently.
It will be recalled (from earlier blogs on this site) that Mrs. Deborah Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, initiated a case in the courts last year to seek an order to the Director of Public Prosecutions that he publicly declare a policy with respect to prosecution (for assisting suicide) of those who accompany their relatives to countries such as Switzerland for the purpose of obtaining an assisted suicide. Mrs. Purdy was concerned that should she decide to make such a trip, and allow her husband to accompany and support her, he may be prosecuted for assisting her suicide, and she wanted a firm assurance that he would not be prosecuted under such circumstances. The Director of Public Prosecutions was not willing to give such an assurance in advance, and Mrs. Purdy’s attempt to persuade the courts to order him to do so were unsuccessful.
Earlier this month, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, introduced an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, currently being debated in the House of Lords, designed to achieve what Mrs. Purdy had failed to achieve, and what the courts had decided was properly a matter for Parliament, rather than them, to decide. Lord Falconer’s proposed carefully worded amendment, would have changed the law of assisted suicide to protect from prosecution those who accompanied loved ones who were genuinely terminally ill and had freely decided to seek an assisted suicide in a foreign country in which such assisted suicides are legal.
The amendment engendered what Lord Bach (the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice) referred to as “an outstanding debate on a matter of the highest importance”, in which “passionately held views on all sides” were expressed. The House was especially moved by the contribution to the debate of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. She has suffered from spinal muscular atrophy from birth, and was given two years to live at birth. She often requires the aid of a ventilator to breathe, and had to be assisted in presenting her views to the House. She urged her fellow Parliamentarians not to approve the amendment, arguing that “not a single organisation of or for terminally ill people supports…assisted dying legislation”, and that the amendment, if enacted would “establish the precedent that assisted dying be sanctioned by the state.”
In closing her remarks, Baroness Campbell said: “If I should ever seek death - there have been times when my progressive condition challenges me - I want a guarantee that you are there supporting my continued life and its value. The last thing that I want is for you to give up on me, especially when I need you most.”
Rarely has such an impassioned debate been recorded in Hansard. Lord Falconer’s proposed amendment was defeated by a vote of 194-141. You can find this debate here at Cols 595-636.