IN A speech from the floor of the House of Lords shortly before Christmas, Lady Meacher revealed her intention to hijack the Health and Social Care Bill to legalise assisted suicide.
‘Crucial to high-quality palliative care is the patient’s right to choose at the very end of life, and the Bill needs to play its part in this area – we cannot afford not to,’ said the baroness, who, when not campaigning for the decriminalisation of drugs, also serves as the chair of Dignity in Dying, the campaigning organisation formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.
She prefaced her words by informing peers that such measures were necessary to save the NHS which, she said, was suffering ‘the greatest workforce stress since its inception’, with staff burnt out, retiring early, ‘leaving the service mid-career, reducing their hours, or planning one or other of these steps in terrifying numbers’.
Those fed up with Lady Meacher’s obsessions predicted an assisted suicide amendment to the Government’s Bill imminently, especially since Boris Johnson had frowned upon her own Assisted Dying Bill and was likely to deny it parliamentary time to progress into law.
They were right. Meacher subsequently tabled an amendment which is due to be considered at Committee Stage from January 11.
It is cautiously worded, its authors conscious perhaps that to use a Bill aimed at restructuring the NHS as a vehicle for assisted suicide is as outrageous as, say, manipulating it for the purpose of reintroducing capital punishment.
They do not wish to see it rejected. So the Lords will be asked to consider what looks like a Trojan Horse disguised as a camel, an attempt to extend the scope of the regulations to include assisted suicide which is so slippery it might just squeeze through.
Of course, there is no explicit mention of assisted suicide at all. Instead, it says that ‘the regulations must make provision . . . for anyone with a terminal illness to be offered a conversation about their holistic needs, wishes and preferences for end of life’, and that ‘a relevant authority must have regard to the needs and preferences recorded in such conversations in making decisions about procurement of services’.
Strip back the innocuous-sounding legalese and the implicit dismissal of the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act, and what remains could read as a requirement for doctors to obey patients who request assisted suicide, or even euthanasia.
Yet like all ‘assisted dying’ legislation it is vague, thin on specifics and open to infinite interpretation. Even the phrase ‘terminal’, if not clarified, could to apply anyone with a learning disability, for instance, since such people have an average life expectancy decades shorter than the general population. It would also apply to insulin-dependent diabetics and a host of other conditions which could potentially shorten life.
The sceptics among us would suspect that this is not really an unforeseen consequence, but precisely the point. What is vital for euthanasia aficionados at the present time is simply the beachhead, the foot in the door to wider, ever more permissive (or barbaric and regressive) and yet-to-be-revealed practices and reforms.
What is interesting is that Compassion in Dying, the sister charity to Dignity in Dying, is already deeply involved in offering the kind of ‘conversation’ to which the amendment alludes.
It has enjoyed a hugely successful pandemic in which it saw an unprecedented surge in demand for its services in drawing up living wills in particular, with a 226 per cent increase in the number of people completing advance statements using the charity’s MyDecisions online tool by May 2020 alone.
It has been so successful, in fact, that care staff supporting adults with learning disabilities are specifically directed by the NHS to Compassion in Dying for further information on advance care planning – even though the charity exists for the purposes of assisted suicide and is laying down the infrastructure for the practice in anticipation of a change in the law.
It is easy, even for our legislators, to be duped by superficial promises of patient choice or by glib arguments about expediency, but scratch the glitter and sometimes it is possible to detect sinister ideologies and dark and disturbing prejudices lurking just beneath.
Only last week, for example, the Daily Telegraph revealed that during the pandemic GP surgeries were asking if teenagers with autism and Down’s syndrome wanted not to be resuscitated amid concerns about the pressure on the NHS. Why single out the disabled for measures such as these?
Surely this is evidence, along with Lady Meacher’s own justification for assisted suicide as imperative for the salvation of the NHS, that the leap from the so-called ‘right to die’ to a ‘duty to die’ may be very short indeed. The heralded golden age of patient ‘choice’ at the end of life may turn out to be little more than a cruel and empty promise when, over time, doctor-assisted death becomes the only choice left to make.
The Lords should not allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by Baroness Meacher by or anyone else. They should see her amendment precisely for what it is – deceptively dangerous and highly irresponsible – and reject it without delay.