Why, asks Ian Macrae, is Lord Falconer so persistent in his attempts to change the law on assisted suicide?
It was once reported that the final words of Richard Nixon’s mother to the former president were, “Richard, don’t you ever give up.” Others contended that what she actually said was, “Richard! Don’t you ever give up?”
The frustration and exasperation lent by that questioning inflection are self-evident.
It’s a story which came back into my memory on hearing that Lord [Charlie] Falconer, the former Labour, now shadow Lord Chancellor is seeking an early opportunity to re-introduce his bill to the House of Lords which would aim to change the law on assisted suicide. His most recent attempt earlier this year ran out of time following the calling of the general election.
A number of things occur to me. but before listing them I’d like, for clarity’s sake, to restate the current legal position.
Presently it is against the law to assist someone to kill themselves. Anyone found guilty of doing so is liable to a prison sentence of up to fourteen years.
It is the view of disabled activists, some of whom have opposed Lord Falconer vigorously from their own position in the House of Lords and others who have done so equally vigorously if from less elevated locations, that making any change to this law represents real and significant dangers to the lives of disabled people regardless of whether or not they have life-limiting or life-ending conditions or impairments.
The belief among these people is that disabled people’s lives are already at too much risk of being shortened by the actions and attitudes of medical practitioners, through DNR (Do not resuscitate) notices being placed on medical records as a result of such attitudes; and by decisions being made by family members on the advice of practitioners or of their own volition.
Such are the fears, concerns and realities engendered by a society which places disabled lives at less value than others and whose members make ill-informed judgements or assumptions about the quality of our lives.
It is also fair to say that, though more of a balance has been restored by the aforementioned activist peers, this side of the argument is generally less well represented or given credibility in the mainstream media than is the other side represented by the views of groups such as Dignity In Dying. Indeed the choice of one more person to go to Dignitas in Switzerland – significant as it is in a personal and family context – prompts Lord Falconer to announce that when a ballot for private members bills is opened in the House of Lords and If he is lucky enough to win a place in that ballot, he will seek to bring back is assisted dying bill. Not only that, but the media, BBC Radio 4’s World At One among them, scramble to get him on air and in print to plug his latest attempt.
In a recent podcast interview with Disability Now, Baroness Grey-Thompson acknowledged Lord Falconer’s legal and procedural knowledge and expertise, indicating that he used these to increase the chances of his bill becoming law.
Meanwhile disabled activists and their allies wonder why Lord Falconer is so hell-bent on changing a law which currently offers security and protection to one group, and changing it in favour of another group who already have the ability and right to choose another option.
And so the question said to have been asked by Richard Nixon’s mother is echoed. Charlie! Don’t you ever give up?