SINCE last summer that great watchdog of our liberties, the Sunday Times, has fervently campaigned for the legalisation of assisted suicide.
Barely a week goes by without its running a story planted by Dignity in Dying (formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) or its acolytes, invariably without any balancing comments from any of the dozen or so groups run by disabled people who ardently oppose such a law, or the many politicians, doctors, lobby groups and so on who equally insist, with sound reasons, why it would be extremely unwise to license doctors to assist in the suicides of their patients.
Cancelling the voices of the weak and vulnerable while giving carte blanche to euthanasia activists is misguided, and the Sunday Times has now compounded its misjudgement by championing the case of Douglas Laing, a former Army nurse who admitted to the newspaper that he administered a lethal injection to his cancer-stricken first wife in 1998 at her behest.
When, on the back of its tear-jerking coverage, Devon and Cornwall Police investigated Laing for murder, the paper was outraged, refusing to co-operate with the force on principle and using its leader column to describe the inquiries as ‘idiotic’ and a ‘wrong-headed and pointless’ waste of police time.
However Private Eye magazine has also taken an interest in Laing, revealing in its latest issue (January 19) that he has form when it comes violence against women, having bludgeoned his second wife Susan with a mallet in 2017, seriously injuring her. Laing admitted wounding her with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and was given a three-year jail sentence. Who knew? If the Sunday Times did, which you would expect it to since it was reported by other papers, it kept it to itself.
Funnily enough, all this came out less than a week after the Crown Prosecution Service publicly proposed to drop the requirement for prosecutors ‘almost certainly’ to charge a suspect for engaging in the ‘mercy killings’ of relatives. The move follows the case of Mavis Eccleston, 80, who entered into a suicide pact with husband Dennis, who was terminally ill. She survived, was prosecuted but was acquitted.
The proposals offer greater flexibility than presently exists, but they do not guarantee protection from prosecution. Medics who assist in suicides, for example, as well as relatives who profit from, say, smothering their loved ones with a pillow, or who have history of violence against the victim, may face murder charges. The CPS may still move against spouses who kill their partners, but no longer will always do so.
Why the CPS bothered to act at all is a mystery since the existing arrangement gives the DPP discretion not to prosecute if, after careful examination of the facts of any case, it is clear that any assistance in a suicide was given out of compassion, however misplaced, and there had been no criminal motivation.
Besides striking the right balance, it exerts a powerful deterrent effect against would-be criminals. As a result, fewer than 20 cases cross the DPP’s desk annually throughout the whole of England and Wales and these cases do not usually require prosecution. Surely no one has a right to be indignant if they have taken it upon themselves to kill a loved one and are subsequently investigated, and no national newspaper should protest against this.
Dignity in Dying, in fact, could have been cock-a-hoop at such an unnecessary concession by the CPS but instead it expressed annoyance that the proposals did not go far enough, calling once again on Parliament to change the law.
Its campaign is now in full throttle, after all. Moves are under way to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland and both assisted suicide and euthanasia in Jersey. The Assisted Dying Bill of Baroness Meacher is progressing slowly through the House of Lords and by the end of the month peers will consider an amendment by Lord Forsyth, John Major’s Scotland Secretary, to the Health and Social Care Bill to require the Government to introduce assisted suicide legislation within a year of the Act becoming law.
Lord Forsyth’s initiative is bold because the amendment of a government Bill to demand the introduction of a Bill on a totally different matter is without precedent in the UK. On this basis alone it ought to be rejected. If it is allowed to proceed, parliamentarians should join the CPS in asking themselves honestly whether any replacement rules would allow criminals to kill, abuse, and exploit vulnerable people with greater impunity.
In spite of the suggestions of Dignity in Dying and its friends, family members are not invariably abounding in unconditional love and compassion for each other, as Laing’s second wife could testify (his first, unfortunately, is unable to share her version of events).
It is worrying that a report for the House of Lords in November found that the abuse of older people is a serious problem within families, affecting as many as one in six pensioners and particularly if they have dementia.
Such abuse obviously includes violence, but psychological and financial abuse was recorded as the most common form of harm, sometimes involving the manipulation of older people to obtain assets through marriage, wills and abuse of lasting powers of attorney.
Controlling and coercive behaviour by perpetrators and social isolation of victims already make elder abuse difficult to detect or tackle. The reforms by the CPS may risk making such problems worse, and the legalisation of assisted suicide will effectively strip away those protections vital to guaranteeing vulnerable and elderly people equality before the law. That’s why disabled people oppose it so vigorously.
Two very recent developments in countries which have legalised euthanasia serve to highlight just how dangerous ‘assisted dying’ is.
In New Zealand, where legal euthanasia came into force only in November, the Ministry of Health admitted in a response to the equivalent to a Freedom of Information request that some Covid patients are eligible for lethal injections. This was not envisaged by legislators but it is permitted by the letter of the law they passed – an unforeseen consequence.
In Canada the removal of a ‘reasonably foreseeable death’ as a criterion of eligibility from the five-year-old euthanasia law there (initial safeguards are frequently later removed) has raised the question of what protections now exist for elderly, given that frailty can be perceived as an intolerable burden warranting a lethal injection.
It means that euthanasia may be offered on demand for elderly and disabled people, leaving some observers wondering just how long it will take for the so-called ‘right to die’ to become a ‘duty to die’.
These are serious horrors which should addressed by any criminal justice system fit for purpose, including our own.
They also merit truthful examination and open debate in the media. They are far too deadly to be ignored or covered up by newspapers who label the police as ‘idiotic’ for doing their jobs properly while they smugly participate in the shameful work of a death cult.