Writing in The Times (5th January), Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss (former President of the Family Division of the High Court of Justice) argued cogently against any change in the law.
1. The law works well as it is. Each year, fewer than 20 cases of assisted suicide are considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions. In Oregon, by way of contrast, the number of assisted suicides has quadrupled since it was legalised in 1997. ‘Legalisation means normalisation’. If assisted suicide is licenced, it will cease to be the rare event it is now.
2. There are exceptional circumstances under which a law might reasonably be broken – a parent who breaks the speed limit in order to get a seriously ill child to hospital, for example – and yet we do not conclude that speeding should be legalised. No: we treat exceptional cases exceptionally, and leave the law alone.
3. Those who want to change the law assure us that the changes would come with safeguards. But the kinds of safeguards being proposed are fraught with problems, given the difficulty of predicting how long a terminally ill person has left to live, of evaluating the nature and permanence of ‘unbearable suffering’, of assessing mental capacity, of protecting vulnerable individuals against abuse and coercion, and so on.
4. ‘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.’
No law is perfect. But the law we have at the moment signals that suicide is neither to be encouraged or assisted. It protects the vulnerable and is applied with sensitivity where there are clear grounds for compassion.
Leave it alone.