In an article in The Sunday Telegraph ('A licence for suicide by any other name') ahead of the publication of Lord Falconer's bill to legalise physician-assisted suicide, Lord Carlile QC has called into question some of the fundamental assumptions on which such legislative proposals rest. Among these is the notion that assisting people who are terminally ill to take their own lives is not really assisting suicide because they are expected to die of their illnesses. Describing this as "Orwellian spin", Lord Carlile writes that "in law as in the English language, if you take your own life, whatever your state of health, that is suicide; and a doctor, or anyone else, who provides you with the means to do so is assisting suicide".
This is no matter of mere semantics. If Parliament is to be asked to legalise certain acts, it needs to be made clear just what those acts are. The nature of an act cannot be altered by giving it a more benign-sounding name. Good law-making requires that we use words with the meanings they have, not those we might like them to have.
Suicide itself was decriminalised over 50 years ago, but as a society we go to great lengths to discourage and prevent suicides. "And yet now", writes Lord Carlile, "we are being told that there are some people (currently the terminally ill) whose suicides it is acceptable to assist".
Those who advocate a change in the law may perhaps argue that they are discriminating in order to confer a benefit on terminally ill people who may be suffering - a choice to end their lives prematurely. But, if legalising assisted suicide is seen as conferring a benefit, where is the logic in offering it to those who are terminally ill and denying it to others with chronic illnesses who may face much longer-lasting suffering? Conversely, if (as we would argue) the law now protects vulnerable people by deterring malicious assistance with suicide, on what grounds can some groups of people be offered less protection from the law than the rest of us?
Those who want to see the law changed may argue that their 'assisted dying' law would come with safeguards to protect the vulnerable. We will have to wait and see just what safeguards Lord Falconer's bill contains. But those put forward up to now have revealed serious weaknesses and the evidence from the handful of jurisdictions around the world which have gone down the 'assisted dying' road is not reassuring.
Legislating to license physician-assisted suicide would represent a major change to the criminal law of this country. It would be telling doctors that they might involve themselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of some of their patients. Before Parliament could responsibly consider such a course, it needs to see convincing evidence that the law we have is not functioning properly and that what would be put in its place would be better. On neither count has any clear evidence been produced.