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Assisted Dying Bill speeds the Shipmanisation of British medicine

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BETWEEN watching vintage Muppet shows to lift quotes for his speeches, Boris Johnson appears to have spent at least a little of the summer recess thinking about assisted suicide before concluding it was a bad idea.

It should have been an easy task because the Assisted Dying Bill really is a poor piece of draft legislation. It is so bad, in fact, that it makes one wonder if Baroness Meacher, who is sponsoring it, is truly convinced of its safety. Even she admits that it was never meant to reach the statute books.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today in Parliament last Friday that the Bill was merely part of a strategy to legalise assisted suicide at some point in the future. It was a way, she explained, to keep ‘the debate going as more and more and more MPs are shifting in favour of assisted dying’ [assisted suicide and euthanasia].

‘Now, we have a soft majority in favour of assisted dying in the House of Commons,’ she said. ‘This Bill is serving a very, very important purpose while we wait for Scotland to legalise assisted dying, which we think will almost certainly happen in about 18 months’ time, and then Westminster will be completely ready for this and the law will change.’

It is difficult to know if Lady Meacher has seen too many James Bond movies or not enough. Either way, this was her Ernst Stavro Blofeld moment: she showed her hand and revealed her master plan.

So the House of Lords, which has already spent 54 hours debating this subject in the last two decades (the Commons has notched up 24), will on Friday spend at least another nine hours going over the arguments again just so Dignity in Dying, the death cult formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which Lady Meacher chairs, can butter up one MP after another until the time is ripe to strike.

Don’t expect her to apologise for wasting parliamentary time. This is a woman who speaks with the moral certainty of a Puritan, convinced that a change is overdue, inevitable and that her place in history is assured.

Perhaps it isn’t obvious to her that to others assisted suicide doesn’t feel like ‘progress’ towards some sort of sunlit uplands. Her lackeys like to disparage their opponents as belonging to the ‘religious Right’. True, many religious people oppose such practices and so do people with no religion. Disabled people are terrified of assisted suicide, most doctors do not wish to be involved, and liberal-minded politicians are left cold time and again when they consider and digest the facts.

These are the sorts of people who would normally warm to ‘progress’ and who have instead concluded that this is not a bit like the struggle for women’s suffrage. Rather, it’s more redolent of the debate about whether to legalise hard drugs such as heroin, and the arguments are similar. My body, my choice – without any reference to the common good.

But in the same way as it is possible to look to Amsterdam and say, ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to join the drugs free-for-all, people in this country may now also judge assisted suicide and euthanasia by the horrific consequences of such experiments in Belgium and the Netherlands and in Canada and the United States.

The slippery slope, or open door, is demonstrated in every jurisdiction to have joined the club. All countries start out with safeguards which appear unassailable but crumble as they are redefined as barriers to access. Incremental increases in death rates accompany the expansion of eligibility. Unbearable or terminal illness gives way to death for the non-dying, children, disabled people, alcoholics, the depressed, the demented and the mentally ill.

Yet the descent to Hell is far from complete: the concept of unbearable suffering is creating a right to death on demand for Belgians with no physical ailments while in Holland the idea of euthanasia for people ‘tired of life’ is gaining traction; it will deliver precisely the same thing.

What is particularly disturbing about assisted dying laws is the way they essentially strip away vital protections against homicide of one kind and another. They sometimes do this by removing them from a criminal category and placing them in a medical category. What this means is that when doctors kill they are not punished unless it can be shown that there was an abuse of procedure and within medicine the policing of such procedures tends to be strongly weighted in their favour.

Take Belgium, where three doctors declared that Tine Nys, a young woman jilted by her lover, was suffering from autism to meet her demand for euthanasia. Last year they were acquitted by a jury, to great applause, after they successfully argued that they ticked the right boxes. It was if the trial was about bad book-keeping rather than poisoning.

At about the same time a doctor in the Netherlands escaped sanction after killing an old woman with dementia. She had earlier signalled her intention to die by euthanasia but fought against it when her family decided the time had come for her to go. Sedatives were dropped into her coffee and family members held her down while the doctor gave her a lethal injection.

For millennia this act would have been rightly considered as murder. In Holland, however, it was held up against a medical code of practice and the doctor was exonerated. The only casualty, besides the old woman, was the code, which was amended to offer greater clarity (and leniency) to doctors in cases where the patient has lost mental capacity.

Similarly, in Oregon – held up as the model of good practice for Dignity in Dying – two doctors were investigated in 2018 for failing to comply with the Death With Dignity Act. Typical of a practice shrouded in secrecy, they were not identified and there was no explanation for what they were supposed to have done. But they got off scot-free. That they had their collars felt in the first place was a minor miracle because the Oregon law is designed to cover up abuse, principally through a self-reporting requirement upon prescribing physicians (who would surely never own up to abuse).

So how does the Meacher Bill compare with such laws and what abuses could we expect to see should it become law here?

Unsurprisingly, criminal liability under the Suicide Act 1961 will be removed. Less widely understood is the fact that punishments for coercion and duress, in the rare event of these even being detected, will be far less than existing provisions. Liability for medical malpractice will also be weakened. According to some lawyers, this could open the possibility for doctors to act with impunity. Medicine will police itself.

This all looks pretty bad for ‘patient choice’ and ‘autonomy’ despite what Patrick Stewart and Lady Meacher tell us. While it does not necessarily mean more Harold Shipmans, it does mean that a rogue doctor would be unlikely to be caught and brought to justice.

Let us not forget that Dr Shipman’s 176 cremation forms were all countersigned by a second doctor. Baroness Meacher proposes a second medical opinion as a safeguard. If it didn’t work then, why should it work now?

Scandalous tales of bad care, some bordering on the homicidal, continue to abound, and they fuel the fear and disgust that leads to some people wishing their loved ones had the option of an assisted suicide instead of a cruel death in an NHS hospital.

Poor care, however, cannot be solved by assisted suicide. A permissive law will only give more power to the minority of unscrupulous doctors who would abuse it, encouraged by the relentless pressure to cut costs that may give them moral purpose.

It would serve as a charter to the likes of these, some of whom may go on to develop a taste for killing. It would allow them to act like gods with power over life and death, to evade the law and to hide behind a tick-box protocol if they were ever so unlucky or so stupid as to be caught. It would complete the Shipmanisation of British medicine. Boris was right. Assisted suicide is a rotten idea. If only Fozzie Bear could have said something.

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Simon Caldwell
Simon Caldwell is a former Daily Mail journalist who works as a freelance writer and public relations consultant, focusing on poor care and bad practice within the NHS.

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