Every few months, there is another case before the courts of a family devastated after an individual who wanted death was denied it. Tomorrow, for example, is the last day of the hearing for the cases of Paul Lamb (paralysed in a car accident) and Jane Nicklinson (wife of the late Tony Nicklinson, who suffered locked-in syndrome after a stroke), who are seeking a ruling that any doctor who helps someone in such a position to die would not face criminal charges.
Theirs are desperate stories of human suffering prolonged by the state’s refusal to sanction the help to end it. And the new attempt to change the law launched by Lord Falconer yesterday deserves careful consideration.
As it stands, the law forbids assisted dying but turns a blind eye to compassionate amateur assistance. It does not permit medical involvement and is no guarantee against prosecution. It is, as Lord Falconer has said, inadequate and incoherent, and it has resulted in some premature and botched suicides by leaving some to take their lives secretly, without support.
What is needed, instead, is a clear legal position enabling terminally ill people to choose an assisted death which is medically supervised and safe. Such a law would provide greater protection for patients and family members and greater choice for individuals.
Critics fear that such provisions might be used by those who are depressed or that a dying person might be pressured into taking their life by fear of becoming a burden. Lord Falconer has responded with a Bill that is the most restrictive of its kind – allowing an assisted death only to terminally ill patients with less than six months to live, only to those who can self-administer the drugs, and only with the agreement of two independent doctors.
The proposal will not satisfy all supporters of assisted dying, but its careful drafting gives it the best chance yet. Success in the Lords would represent an important step forward in this desperately difficult area.