Simon Beard’s article on what he calls ‘the debate around legalising assisted dying’ is so replete with errors, half-truths and spin that it is difficult to know where to start with the correcting pen.
He refers to “the estimated 500 people who commit suicide each year due to a terminal or chronic illness”. The estimate he refers to was made in a report by Demos on the incidence of suicide among seriously ill people. This report does not state that 500 people commit suicide each year because they are terminally or chronically ill. It estimates that “approximately 10 per cent of suicides that take place in England involve people with either a chronic or terminal illness”. That is not the same thing as saying that these suicides are attributable to serious illness. Moreover, only a small proportion of these suicides involved people who had received a diagnosis of terminal illness – the group to which Mr Beard believes any ‘assisted dying’ law should be limited.
The piece talks confidently of “the 2,000 people who receive some form of illegal assistance from a physician to end their lives each year”. He appears to be referring to research carried out a few years ago by Professor Clive Seale. This suggested, based on anonymous responses to questionnaires, that 0.5 per cent of deaths in the UK might have resulted of euthanasia. While the reasons for such anonymity are clear, it is dangerous to place too much weight on the findings stemming from them. What they provide is an indication. In fact, Professor Seale comments in his research that in the UK “euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and the ending of life without an explicit patient request are rare or non-existent”. Reflecting this view, Professor Seale commented orally to Lord Falconer’s self-styled ‘commission on assisted dying’ in 2011 that “it does sometimes happen in UK medical practice but pretty rarely”.
Mr Beard believes that, if we were to have an ‘assisted dying’ law, “a police investigation must be conducted before a person is assisted to end their life, not after they are dead”. Perhaps I should point out that the police do not investigate crimes before they are committed. Any inquiries carried out before an assisted suicide would have to be subjective assessments of such things as mental capacity and freedom from coercion. These are not as easy to establish as Mr Beard appears to think, especially in these days where many doctors operate in multi-partner practices and do not have first-hand knowledge of their patients’ family backgrounds.
Finally, the piece appears to demonstrate an imperfect grasp of the law governing assisted suicide. He appears to believe, for example, that a decision not to prosecute in the public interest signifies that the Crown Prosecution Service takes the view that the assisters “just haven’t done anything wrong”. That may possibly be his view, but it is not what the public interest test is about. A decision not to prosecute in the public interest means that a prosecution is not necessary in order to protect the public, as may well be the case for an isolated act of assistance with suicide in which there has been no malice or manipulation. Licensing assistance with suicide is something quite different. It changes the dynamic completely, as we can see from the experience of Oregon, where the number of such suicide deaths has risen nearly fivefold in the last 15 years.
Simon Beard’s article may pass muster as campaigning propaganda, but it is not grounded in serious research or knowledge of the law.
* Lord Alex Carlile of Berriew QC is a Liberal Democrat peer, deputy high court judge and practising barrister, and was the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation between 2001 and 2011