5 things to know about the Falconer Bill

by Oxford Students for Life

Lord Falconer’s Bill will come before the House of Lords for its second reading on the 18th July. Here are 5 things to know about the Bill:

(1) The Bill was put together by an independent Commission. The Commission on Assisted Dying was set up in 2010, chaired by Lord Falconer, and funded by Sir Terry Pratchett and Bernard Lewis. It aimed to investigate the “circumstances under which it should be possible for people to be assisted to die” and to “recommend what system, if any, should exist to allow people to be assisted to die”.

(2) The Commission itself has not been free from criticism. It was set up in response to two independent Parliamentary Select Committees, who examined the issue and concluded that no change in the current law was necessary. Around 40 leading medical, ethical and disability rights organisations boycotted the Commission’s call for evidence submissions due to a perceived bias in the way the Commission was set up and how it intended to conduct its research. The British Medical Association passed a motion in June 2011 disputing the Commission’s claim to impartiality and independence.

(3) The Bill in its current form aims to change the existing law so that terminally ill adults are provided “at their request with specified assistance to end their own life.” This is only possible where the person fulfills certain conditions: they must have a “clear and settled intention” to end their own life; they must be over 18 and have resided for more than one year in the UK; their illness must be confirmed as ‘terminal’ by a registered medical practitioner because it cannot be “reversed by treatment” and as a consequence of that illness the person is “reasonably expected to die within six months.”

(4) There are many arguments against the Bill. The Bill is clear in expressing the criteria required to be eligible for assisted suicide, but fails to provide guidelines on how to assess whether any of these criteria have been met. This poses a serious threat to the safety of vulnerable members of society. Evidence can be found in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1998, of the dangers of not ensuring that psychiatric assessments are used to rule out judgment impairing mental conditions. A 2008 British Medical Journal paper concluded that Oregon’s law failed to protect mentally ill patients since cases of clinical depression had passed undiagnosed.

Another problem with the criteria in the Bill is that patients are required to have a terminal prognosis of six months or less. However a terminal prognosis is extremely unreliable, and the Royal College of GPs have said when estimates are being made for people living a matter of months, the “scope for error can extend into years.” The Bill would also have a very negative effect on clinical practice, since it would directly undermine patients’ right to life and medical care. Baroness Campbell wrote last year that the existing law rests on “the principle that we do not involve ourselves in directly bringing about the deaths of other people”. She argued that the Falconer Bill tries to replace that clear principle “with an arbitrary and permeable one.”

One of the greatest problems with this Bill is the false assumption that the value of life diminishes closer to death. The value of life never diminishes, and so the challenge is for us to offer support and love to the terminally ill so that they may have true ‘dignity in dying’, rather than try to provide a false dignity through control over the time and manner of death.

(5) The Bill will come before the House of Lords on the 18th July for the second time, the first of which was at the start of June. The second reading is the first opportunity for the members of the Lords to debate the main principles and purposes of the Bill. After that it goes through a couple of different stages where amendments can be made before a third and final reading in the Lords. All this takes place before the Bill can reach the House of Commons, Royal Assent and be passed. Now is therefore the time to write to Peers to make sure all the arguments for the case to keep the current law are heard, and to express your concerns and hesitations with the Bill.