A media frenzy has erupted in the UK over a hopelessly biased report on assisted suicide.
The New Year is ushered in by Father Time, who derives from the Greek God Chronos, more commonly known as the Grim Reaper. A fitting moment, you might think, for the publication of the findings of Lord Falconer’s Commission on Assisted Dying.
Hopelessly biased and distorted, the Falconer Commission is stacked full of euthanasia sympathisers and was suggested by Dignity in Dying (formerly The Voluntary Euthanasia Society). Note the change in name, and never concede that, to die with dignity, you need a doctor to kill you. The funding for the Commission was provided by Bernard Lewis and Terry Pratchett, the latter a patron of Dignity in Dying. It is entirely wedded to introducing legalisation for assisted suicide for those who are terminally ill.
Over 50 organizations refused to give evidence to the Commission when they saw its composition. Instead, Dignity in Dying contacted its own members asking them to give evidence to the Commission. The British Medical Association (BMA) passed a 5 point resolution that undermined the Commission credibility by questioning its impartiality and independence.
When the Commission was established it was revealed that nine of the twelve commissioners were well-known names in the pro-legalisation lobby. The remaining three are certainly not against euthanasia. The euthanasia lobby decided to take the ‘independent’ route because when two genuinely independent Parliamentary Select Committees carefully examined the issue they did not recommend a change of law. When votes were then taken in the House of Lords it resulted in large defeats for their proposals (148-100 and 194-141). The last attempt at legalization in Scotland also resulted in a heavy defeat (85-16) for Margo Macdonald’s Bill in 2010.
For the record, and to give some idea of the scale of the parliamentary Inquiry, the Select Committee covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence; 2,460 questions were asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. Compare the coverage given by the BBC and others to the parliamentary Inquiry with the media circus and feeding frenzy generated by the Falconer Commission.
An unbiased and impartial account of this debate might mention the opposition to a change in the law expressed in Parliament – predominantly on the grounds of public safety – and by the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations – who eloquently set out all the negative outcomes which would result from a change in the law.
Instead, we are treated to a barrage of propaganda . Even the BBC’s Radio Times has joined the pack, claiming on its cover that watching a man die in Switzerland would be “5 minutes of television that will change our lives”. The sub-editor who chose that caption perhaps failed to appreciate its irony: that the 5 minutes it took to change our lives, irredeemably ended another’s life.
The BBC is in danger of being reduced to the role of a mere cheerleader, producing five programmes in the past three years in favour of a change, while signally failing to present the other side of the argument. But this isn’t just about bias.
The BBC’s recent programmes celebrating assisted suicide not only break their own Code about providing balance when discussing ethical issues but, even more seriously, they also breach the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines, published in 2000. The WHO clearly set out the responsibilities and duties of the media. Consider some of these strictures in the context of the programme featuring Terry Pratchett and the euthanasia centre in Switzerland.
The WHO begin by reminding the media of the incredible impact which it can have in informing attitudes and behaviour: “Media strongly influence community attitudes… media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.”
The WHO points to the way in which television can negatively influence suicidal behaviour. One study showed an increase in the number of suicides for up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide. It also warns against publicising suicide stories where celebrities are involved and warn against sensational coverage – which they argue should be assiduously avoided. The coverage should be minimized to the greatest possible extent possible. The WHO is right when it says:
“Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one’s life. The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”
In line with these WHO guidelines I would expect to see is a sober and balanced assessment of the issues, not cheap voyeuristic programmes which could easily form part of the genre known as “snuff” movies. A person’s death should not be a form of prime time entertainment, part of the battle for programme ratings – dressed up in the name of a hollow compassion.
In this country 550,000 people die each year. Very rarely do any make the newspapers or the media. Why does one lethal cocktail – but not 549,999 deaths – warrant wall-to-wall campaigning coverage?
Macmillan nurses, hospices and palliative care give the overwhelming majority in Britain a dignified death which does not involve commissioning doctors and nurses as patient killers. By all means agitate for improvement where the provision or practice isn’t good enough but let the BBC end this one-sided and relentless campaign.
The Falconer Commission’s findings might be dismissed as propaganda but it would be foolish to underestimate the determination of little cliques and elites determined to manipulate public opinion and law. And consider what is at stake.
Chillingly, Baroness Warnock, who shaped the laws which have led to the destruction of millions of human embryos, has said that the sick are “wasting people’s lives” because of the care they require: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.” Suggesting that we have a “duty to die” she said “I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.”
This turns the argument into a worth based on someone’s economic value rather than on their true human value and their human dignity.
And in case you think “putting people down” just “couldn’t happen here” consider the situation in Holland. Just before Christmas the Dutch announced that they are considering mobile units to kill people in their own homes. 1,000 of the 4,000 euthanasia deaths in Holland each year are now done without the patient’s consent. Not content with this, the Dutch say that 80% of people with dementia or mental illnesses are being ‘missed’ by the country’s euthanasia laws. They say that the death-on-wheels mobile units are necessary because some GPs have refused to administer lethal drugs to their patients.
This isn’t giving people “dignity in dying”. Sending out mobile units to administer lethal injections, to “put people down”, will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable. It diminishes the dignity and humanity of the sick and elderly and diminishes those of us who condone it.
Imagine what will happen in Britain if the Falconer Commission gets its way. You have a terminal incurable disease. You have the option of palliative care at £1,000 a week or a glass of barbiturates at £5. Would we honestly see relatives seeing granny living on and exhausting the inheritance? One in eight current cases of elder abuse currently involves financial abuse by relatives and it would inevitably increase if we change the law. Won’t health ministers, counting their pennies in a recession, be tempted to go for the cheaper option? A Bill allowing assisted suicide will carry the seeds of its own extension. If we allow it for some why deny it to others? So how long before the Dutch mobile killing units arrive in a street near you?
A change in the law is unnecessary, dangerous and unethical. As the distinguished lawyer, Lord Carlile QC, puts it we have “a hard law, with a kind face.” We should keep it that way.
When the physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs of the patient are met, requests for euthanasia are actually extremely rare. Less than 1,000 people persistently ask for it. Ninety-five percent of palliative medicine specialists are opposed to a change in the law.
Rather than imitating the Dutch, in 2012 we need to make a New Year’s Resolution to get behind groups like the admirable Care Not Killing Alliance, to defend and care for the sick and elderly and to put our energy into extending compassionate palliative care and hospice provision, and practical loving support – let’s demand “dignity in living” with the same fervour as those who want to license the routine killing of the most vulnerable in society. Let’s welcome the new but not see off the old.
David Alton is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the House of Lords in the UK. This article has been republished with permission from his blog.
Editor's note: for a discussion of similar report in Canada, see Margaret Somerville's "Tipping the scales towards euthanasia" (Dec 14)