Johnson_boris_2_3Tory MP Boris Johnson has used his Telegraph column to discuss Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.   Pro-life groups have produced excellent briefings against the Bill (see, for example, here) but Mr Johnson is minded to support the right-to-die at the heart of the legislation:

"The closer I study Lord Joffe’s Bill, the more inclined I am to think it reasonable. It is full of restrictions – notably that death must be only a few months away at most; and all sorts of attestations are demanded from doctors and solicitors.  I can see all the disadvantages, and if the law were to be changed, then it would need careful review, to make sure that people were not coming under any pressure whatever to take their lives. But I think it might be better than seeing increasing numbers of British people forced to take their lives in a foreign country."


Mr Johnson attempts to directly address the fear that a right-to-die might quickly become a duty-to-die:

"It is certainly possible to imagine that, if assisted suicide were legal in this country, then old, confused and pain-racked people could start protesting that they "didn’t want to be a burden", and their exhausted and demoralised relatives could indeed begin to persuade themselves that this was the best solution.  That is the reason why many people will oppose the Joffe Bill on assisted suicide, currently in the Lords. I completely understand their reasons; and yet we should also be clear what we are saying to people such as Dr Turner, and the doctors who might be tempted to help them out of their misery.  Sorry, we say: you are physically incapable of taking your own life (an action decriminalised in this country in 1961), and therefore we must sentence you to whatever physical and mental tortures your mortal biology may send you, for the term of your natural life. If necessary, you must go on and on in unbearable pain, and any doctor who helps you to die will be liable to 14 years in prison."

The "unbearable pain" argument is hotly disputed by pro-lifers who point to significant advances in palliative medicine and Britain’s globally-respected hospice movement.  Some of the best arguments against the Joffe Bill were put by Rowan Williams in a recent op-ed in the Mail on Sunday.  These were the Archbishop of Canterbury’s main concerns:

  • The end of the ‘do no harm’ principle: "If we say that people have a right to die in some circumstances, does this create a duty on the part of doctors and nurses to bring about death?"
  • Conscientious objections: "What are the safeguards for the right of medical professionals to refuse [to end a patient’s life] on conscientious grounds?"
  • Patient-doctor trust: "What will be the effect of legislation be on trust in the medical profession?"
  • A right-to-die becomes a duty-to-die: "Will there be a suspicion or fear that pressure will be brought to bear on those in terminal or extreme conditions to ask for ‘assisted dying’?"
  • Resource constraints lead to euthanasia: "Will individuals or their families – not to mention doctors and nurses – be able to cope with the feeling of unspoken pressure to save scarce resources?"  The Archbishop of Canterbury notes that elderly people are already moving away from Holland and Switzerland (where voluntary euthanasia is legal) because of fears of what might happen to them when they need medical care.
  • Legal euthanasia reduces the incentive to invest in pain control and other medical research: "Can we be sure that high-quality research will continue into ageing, dementia and pain control, when there is a swifter and less costly option available in the form of ‘assisted dying?’" and similarly, "Will this legislation undermine investment in palliative provision?"

During the run-off stage of the leadership election ConservativeHome asked the two candidates if they would support Joffe-type legislation.  David Cameron’s answer was simple and direct.  He replied "no".