Let me turn then to the case of Canada, whose law in this area was also cited by the hon. Gentleman as an example we should follow. Just a few days ago, a clinical director from Canada came to this place and made a presentation. I was privileged enough to chair the meeting; it was called “ ‘Assisted dying’ in Canada? A cautionary tale.” To clarify, at about the same time as this House rejected assisted suicide here, in Canada there was a court case that decriminalised assisted suicide on the basis that it should be up to capable adults who clearly consent to the termination of life and are suffering intolerably from a grievous and irredeemable medical condition.
What the clinical director told us was startling. She told us of grave problems now being encountered in that country in connection with the practice of assisted suicide. She told us that in fact medical assistance in dying, or MAID as it is called there, involves in 99% of cases euthanasia, not assisted suicide. She told us of funding allocated to palliative care previously now being diverted for these purposes; of assessments being done on a very rudimentary basis, including even by telephone; of safeguards such as the 10-day reflection period being regularly shortened; and of MAID being used for non-terminal illnesses, even in a case of arthritis. There are now even proposals for it to be extended to so-called mature minors.
The suggested need for two clinicians to give consent is apparently being effectively flouted, too: all anyone has to do if they cannot find one of the clinicians from the first two approached to give consent is approach another and another until one who will give consent is obtained. Conscientious objection by practitioners is not statutorily provided for, so practitioners are feeling increasingly obligated to undertake this. In Canada the safeguards simply are not working, and I was interested to hear Baroness Meacher, the chair of Dignity in Dying, stand up at the end of that meeting and say, “We don’t want that in this country.”
Those advocating change argue that legal opinion has changed, but it has not. In the most recent court case—that of Noel Conway, who has been mentioned here today—arguments for a change in our current law were rejected not just by three judges of the divisional court, but by three judges of the Court of Appeal, and three judges of the Supreme Court, our highest court, then declined permission for a further appeal.
Advocates of change have wrongly and selectively argued that in a Reith lecture this year the former Justice of the Supreme Court, Lord Sumption, called for a change in this law. He did not. In fact, if his speech is read in context and comprehensively, it is clear that he said the very opposite. He did no more than state a fundamental principle of the criminal law—namely, that it is there to protect society by prohibiting acts regarded as unacceptable, and that one such act is encouraging or assisting suicide. He said that
“we need to have a law against it in order to prevent abuse”.
Yes, he referred to what he called the “untidy compromise”, which recognises that, as with other criminal laws, there can be exceptional circumstances where a person breaks the law for altruistic reasons, and that in such cases prosecution may not be warranted, but there is a world of difference between not prosecuting in such situations and licensing acts in advance.
Next, those arguing for change say that medical opinion is shifting. On what basis? A recent Royal College of Physicians poll of its members is mired in controversy. The RCP was, before the poll, opposed to any change in the law. However, this poll unprecedentedly required a super-majority of 60% of those voting to maintain the status quo. How strange! Bizarrely, the RCP’s council is now arguing that the result of this poll justifies a change in the college’s stance, despite the result of the poll showing that the highest number of those members voting—43.4%—opposed any change in the law and that the lowest number—25%—thought that the RCP should be neutral. Yet, strangely, the RCP has chosen to adopt a neutral stance. It is no wonder that the poll has been the subject of a referral to the Charity Commission for investigation. And for what? As Baroness Finlay said in another place, “neutrality adds nothing”. Let us also note that, within that vote, more than 80% of palliative care physicians wanted the RCP to remain opposed to change.
The fact that the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners are set to consult their members is neither a surprise nor an indication of a change in their position. Professional membership consultations can be expected every few years. Indeed, the RCGP said five years ago that it would do this about now. It is to be hoped that both the BMA and the RCGP will reaffirm their opposition to any change in the law.
Finally, the proponents for change argue that public opinion is shifting, but it all depends on the question people are asked. That is the problem with the 80% figure that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford cited. The more deeply we probe this issue and the more aware people are of the implications of change, the more concerned people become. I can quote from another poll from February this year indicating that more than half the public say that
“some people would feel pressurised into accepting help to take their own life so as not to be a burden on others” if assisted suicide were legal. Only 25% disagreed with that.