Don’t frighten the horses.

Both sides oppose extension of Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law – but for different reasons

When the House of Lords debated Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill last July, Peers were assured that Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law, on which Lord Falconer’s Bill was modelled, was working well and that there had been no calls to extend it beyond its original remit.  Well, we have now seen such a call.  According to Oregon’s press, it has been proposed that the six-months-or-less-to-live eligibility criterion for assisted suicide should be relaxed to twelve months to allow people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (what we call motor neurone disease) to end their lives while they are still able to swallow lethal drugs.

The proposal has, it seems. encountered criticism from both sides of the ‘assisted dying’ debate.  Oregon Right to Life is quoted as saying that “mistakes will be made and deaths will increase dramatically”, while supporters of the present law considered six months “a very appropriate time frame” and extending it to a year would undermine efforts to pass similar laws in other States. 

The proposed extension to Oregon’s law may not succeed on this occasion but it is a straw in the wind.  The fundamental problem with laws like this is that their eligibility criteria are purely arbitrary.  The point was well captured by Baroness Butler-Sloss, former President of the Family Division of the High Court, in an article in The Times in January 2012.  She wrote:

“Laws are like nation states.  They are more secure when their boundaries rest on natural frontiers.  The law we have rests on the principle that we do not involve ourselves in bringing about other people’s deaths.  Once exceptions are introduced, based on arbitrary criteria such as terminal illness or unbearable suffering, those frontiers get blurred.  They become no more than lines in the sand, hard to define and easily crossed”.

So why are we seeing proposals for legislation here which reproduce these instabilities?  A cynical observer might take the view that what we are looking at is an attempt to unpack ‘assisted dying’ in order to get it through the door of Parliament.  As one witness suggested to Lord Falconer’s ‘commission on assisted dying’ in 2011, the sort of legislation needed was “something that will get through.  Let’s get it through first and then maybe we could tinker with it a bit”.  Be that as it may, it is not surprising if Oregon’s advocates of legalised assisted suicide are worried that extending their law at this stage might frighten the horses in other States.  It will certainly do so here.