Comment: Parliament turns a cowardly blind eye to assisted dying

By Michael Charouneau

David Foster’s article on the ban on assisted suicide failed to acknowledge the clear message from the supreme court: that parliament needs to properly address the issue.

The court acknowledged parliament having the final say, but it is clear the overriding message was much stronger. Lord Neuberger, president of the supreme court, said in his judgment:

"Parliament now has the opportunity to address the issue … if it is not satisfactorily addressed there is a real prospect that a further, and successful, application for a declaration of incompatibility may be made".

This was less of an acknowledgment and more of a final warning that parliament can no longer turn a blind eye, and that if they continue to do so, it will be left to judges to rule on an issue of universal importance.

The current law is not – as David Foster says – sensible, and this is why there is so much confusion. Under the existing law people are investigated retrospectively, after the main witness has died, and for many families this means months of police investigations at a time when they should be left to grieve in peace. There is still a maximum prison sentence of 14 years hanging over anyone who has assisted a loved one to die. Doctors and healthcare professionals are facing impossible situations , with very little (and where it exists, often conflicting) guidance on what could constitute assisting someone to die. As a result patients are often unable to have full and frank conversations about their end of life with their healthcare professionals. We must hope that the director of public prosecutions (DPP)  responds quickly to the court's recommendation that she reconsiders the prosecuting policy, so that the situation for healthcare professionals and their patients is clearer.

As Lord Neuberger said:

"If the DPP's policy does not mean what she intends it to mean, and this has been made clear in open court, then it is her duty…to ensure that the confusion is resolved."

There is also the wider issue of how, as a society, we want to treat dying people and respect their wishes. Lord Falconer's assisted dying bill will be debated on Friday 18th July and if passed would allow terminally ill, mentally competent people to decide the manner and timing of their death. An overwhelming majority of the British public support these proposals. There would be upfront safeguards to ascertain if someone has mental capacity, and that they have a prognosis of six months or less. It seems strange that if someone is concerned about vulnerable people they would not want a law to add transparency to a situation which is already happening.

With an assisted dying law no more people would die but fewer people would suffer. The supreme court heard from two individuals who are both terminally ill. Roch Maher, who has motor neurone disease, said that the supreme court had given parliament a 'yellow card' and that he hoped
"parliament will take this very seriously and act now".

Margaret John, suffering from terminal ovarian cancer, knows a change in the law will come too late for her but was happy "to have lived to see the supreme court giving parliament the kick it needed to ensure this issue gets the time and attention it deserves".

These are indeed hard cases but the answer is not to turn away, but face the issue head on. David Foster is guilty of the same offence as parliament; turning a blind eye starves people of compassion and this can no longer be considered acceptable. No one wants to deny people like Roch and Margaret, who know they are dying, the right to a dignified death. Under the current situation they are forced to suffer against their wishes or make difficult and possibly dangerous decisions in order to hasten their inevitable deaths without medical support.

The law you enact is the law you get, and if parliament listens to the overwhelming majority of the public then we will have a safe and compassionate law for dying people.

Unfortunately it is probably too late for people like Roch and Margaret, but if we do not tackle this issue now then the consequence is a muddled and outdated law and more suffering for those who want choice at the end of life. The supreme court's warning must be heeded.

Mickey Charouneau is a press support officer for Dignity in Dying

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.