‘The purpose of the law is to protect the vulnerable’: Robert Preston at OSFL last night

by Oxford Students for Life

An assisted suicide law would threaten public safety, and doctors themselves don’t want it: so Robert Preston argued last night in Oxford Students for Life’s opening event of the academic year.


‘It is not safe to change the law’

As Preston explained, he got into the end-of-life debate more or less by accident. A civil servant for thirty years, he was asked to be Clerk to the parliamentary committee on the 2004 Assisted Dying Bill. Over time, he became convinced that ‘based on the evidence, it is not safe to change the law’. Preston does not think of himself as a campaigner: Living and Dying Well, the think-tank he directs, concentrates on hard facts and produces meticulously researched reports. The facts all point one way, he says: towards keeping the present law. ‘The purpose of the law is to protect society as a whole, to protect the vulnerable’.

Lord Falconer’s proposed reform would change the culture: it would invite weak, ill and depressed people to end their own lives. This is not just speculation. Since 1998, when Oregon passed similar legislation, its death-rate from assisted suicide has risen fivefold. Last year in the Netherlands, meanwhile, euthanasia accounted for 1 in 32 deaths; and there is now pressure for an end-of-life pill to be available in pharmacies. ‘There has been a complete change in culture,’ Preston said of the Dutch situation, which he has seen first-hand. The law ‘changes the public’s view of the act in question.’

This helps to explain why the medical profession firmly opposes assisted suicide. As Preston pointed out, the Royal College of Physicians have themselves intervened, writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2009 to insist that doctors who assisted suicide should be prosecuted. The legal authorities have not imposed their view; rather, ‘This is the doctors’ professional body saying, ‘No, we shouldn’t be doing this.’’

‘Baby-boomers have had it all our own way’

This was a witty and fluent talk, which was well received by a large audience. It was especially pleasing to meet so many audience members who are still undecided on the issues, and came along with an open mind. Preston pointed out that the media debate focuses on the exceptions, not the norm: in the last 10 years, 1 in 50,000 British deaths have been at Dignitas, and each one has been a news story. The other 49,999 tend not to make headlines.

Preston ended with a provocative suggestion. It is strange, he noted, when palliative care has advanced so much in the last fifty years, that the voices for euthanasia have got louder. But his generation, he remarked, with all their prosperity, have grown accustomed to controlling every part of their lives. ‘Baby-boomers have had it all our own way, and we’re coming to the stage when we’re up against something we can’t have our own way.’ Whether the movement comes from compassion or from the desire for absolute autonomy, it should be resisted. ‘Would a law be safe? I doubt it.’