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Commission recommends UK permit assisted suicide

A report by the Commission on Assisted Dying proposes that doctors be given the right to administer fatal doses of drugs to people who want to die because they have been diagnosed with less than a year to live.

HAYWARDS HEATH. UK. 11th January 2012. ASSISTED DYING. John Bray (79) at his home in Haywards Heath, England, with a photograph of his son Simon. Stephen Lock for The National. Words: Dave Sapsted . FOR FOREIGN.
HAYWARDS HEATH. UK. 11th January 2012. ASSISTED DYING. John Bray (79) at his home in Haywards Heath, England, with a photograph of his son Simon. Stephen Lock for The National. Words: Dave Sapsted . FOR FOREIGN.

A renewed drive in Britain to legalise assisted suicide has come too late for Simon Bray.

The 54-year-old died last June in the arms of his wife and father, 15 months after he first began beseeching to be released from the agony of the cancers that were ravaging his body.

Only the last 39 days of his life were remotely bearable, when Simon was admitted to a hospice in Hove on England's south coast and given morphine-based drugs to ease the pain of the various tumours in his bowel, liver and lungs.

A report published by the Commission on Assisted Dying this month proposes a fundamental change in British law to allow doctors to be given the right to administer fatal doses of drugs to people who want to die because they have been diagnosed with less than a year to live.

Currently, it is illegal in the UK - as it is in most other countries around the world - to help a person kill himself or herself, though suicide itself was decriminalised in 1961.

Simon's father, John Bray, believes a change in the law is long overdue. "The problem is that the vast majority of people don't want to address the issue until it happens to them - and, by then, it is too late," Mr Bray, 79, said at his home in Sussex.

"It is your body and your life and you should be allowed to go with dignity. Simon wasn't. He died a horrible, horrible, lingering death. I saw my beautiful boy turn into a skeleton with veins."

Mr Bray said he told the head hospice nurse that "if he were a dog, I would have been charged for prolonging his suffering if I didn't have him put him down."

The nurse, Mr Bray said, reminded him that the law does not allow assisted suicide.

"Then the law's an ass", Mr Bray told her.

The report from the 11-member commission, which was chaired by former government minister Lord (Charles) Falconer and took a year to compile, said that while the law should be changed to enable doctors to end a life, stringent safeguards had to be put in place to protect the vulnerable.

It cited examples such as those people who might not have the mental capacity to make a life or death decision, those who were clinically depressed, or the elderly vulnerable to pressure from friends or relatives.

The commission called on parliament to enact a law that would require assessments by two independent doctors, supported by health and social care professionals.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has welcomed the report because it would make people consider their own attitudes about assisted suicide.

But he said the government would not be taking a stance on the issue "because this is something which is very much for individuals and their consciences, to decide their own moral and ethical judgments".

He said that if the House of Commons were to address the issue, "it would be quite rightly something which MPs themselves would individually decide on in a free vote and this report is a helpful contribution to the debate."

However, pro-life organisations, including faith groups, have criticised the report for providing inadequate safeguards to the vulnerable. They have also pointed out that eight members of the commission had expressed their support for assisted suicide even before beginning their deliberations.

Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director of Care Not Killing, insisted the law does not need changing. "What the commission is proposing is a less safe version of the highly controversial Oregon law, which sees the terminally ill offered drugs to kill themselves, but not [being offered] expensive life-saving and life-extending drugs," he said.

The Rt Rev James Newcome, the Bishop of Carlisle who speaks on health care issue for the Church of England, added: "The commission undertook a quest to find effective safeguards that could be put in place to avoid abuse of any new law legitimising assisted suicide. Unsurprisingly, given the commission's composition, it has claimed to have found such safeguards."

He said the report "failed to demonstrate that vulnerable people are not placed at greater risk under its proposals than is currently the case under present legislation."

The Rev Newcome said that "what Lord Falconer has done is to argue that it is morally acceptable to put many vulnerable people at increased risk so that the aspirations of a small number of individuals, to control the time, place and means of their deaths, might be met."

That, though, is not an argument that sways John Bray. "I just wish those opposed to assisted death could see for themselves the torment that those who desperately want a speedy release from their suffering, actually go through."

 

dsapsted@thenational.ae