I wrote this yesterday, hoping a national newspaper would pick up on it. I the event, the Telegraph ran an article and rang me for quotes. I thought it was quite a decent article so thought I'd post it.
'Let sick Brits die like Hayley'. So read the headline in The Sun a few days ago, referring of course to the suicide of the soap opera character Hayley Cropper in ITV's Coronation Street. What was meant by this, of course, is that Parliament should legalise what is being called 'assisted dying' - the phrase that has become code for assisted suicide.
There have been concerns expressed over copycat suicides. I share these concerns. However, I am also worried that Hayley's suicide is being depicted as a response to terminal illness. That risks sending a message to people who really are terminally ill that to take your own life might be 'the decent thing to do'. At a time when we have an ageing population and rising health care costs, is this really a message we want to send?
The 'Corrie' storyline is about an act of suicide. Predictably, however, the campaigners are jumping on the bandwagon to try and bolster their own agenda, which is legalisation of assisted suicide. Law-making is a serious business. It has to be, because laws have consequences. They can bring benefits, but they can also do harm. It's one thing to say you like the idea of 'assisted dying' but, if you are talking about legislating for it, you have to consider the practicalities. And it is here where the campaigning falls flat.
Take, for example, Lord Falconer's 'Assisted Dying Bill', now before the House of Lords. It sets out various criteria that a request for physician-assisted suicide should meet. But nowhere does it specify any steps that a doctor who is faced with such a request must take in order to be satisfied that those criteria have been met. Don't worry about that, we are told, it will all be decided by other people at a later date if Parliament agrees to legalise assisted suicide. I'm sorry, but this just won't do. When I buy a used car, I want to see the MoT certificate and the service history before I pay up, not after.
We are not talking about tax law or planning law or traffic regulations here. We are talking about a law with (literally) life-or-death consequences. For such a law the safeguards debate cannot be by-passed. If the supporters of assisted suicide are so sure that their ideas can be put into practice without causing harm, let them come out and show us their safety system upfront. If Parliament were ever to consider passing such a law, it would need to be very tightly drawn. What has been served up to us so far is about as watertight as a colander.
It's also about time that all the euphemisms were jettisoned and the campaigners start using plain language about what they are proposing. MSP Margo MacDonald, who has introduced a bill of this kind into the Scottish parliament, is refreshingly upfront about what she wants to legalise: her bill is titled the 'Assisted Suicide (Scotland)' Bill. Yet south of the border Lord Falconer hides behind the term 'assisted dying' and describes the lethal drugs that he wants doctors to be able to supply to patients as 'medicines'. In legislation with such potentially serious consequences we need clarity and transparency, not language bubble-wrapped to disguise its real meaning.
And it's about time too that the campaigners summoned up the courage to bring their proposals to the elected House rather than, as has been the case up to now, to the House of Lords. Most of the debate over the last 10 years has been in the Upper House. A year ago Richard Ottaway MP secured a debate in the House on one aspect of this subject - prosecuting policy in cases of assisted suicide. Richard and I take different views on whether the law should be changed, but I supported his action and I participated, along with many others, in what was a very worthwhile debate. It is the Commons where any future bill should first be considered.
This is a complex and difficult subject on which we need open and informed public debate. But that isn't what is happening. What we are getting is spin and sensationalism, not rational discussion. So let's have an end to the euphemistic language and asking Parliament to sign blank cheques. If the campaigners want Parliament to take them seriously, let them say what they mean in plain language and tell us how it will work. Only in that way can we take informed decisions.