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Joshua Rozenberg
Tuesday 7th July 2009
The Longest Suicide Note

I was not surprised that Lord Falconer's attempt to legalise assisted suicide was defeated in the House of Lords tonight. What surprised me is that the former Lord Chancellor lent his name to it in the first place.

The move was defeated by 194 votes to 141, a majority of 53 against Lord Falconer's amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill.

As drafted by the Government, this Bill contains a clause intended to modernise the current ban on assisted suicide without changing its scope. It would clearly criminalise the author of a pro-suicide website who intended readers to kill themselves - even though the website author might never know who those readers were.

This would strengthen the ban on encouraging or assisting suicide. If Lord Falconer had been successful, the next section of the new Act would have weakened the law's protection for the vulnerable. This would have seemed more than a little incongruous.

And what a vague piece of legislation it would have been! The person assisting a traveller to commit suicide abroad would escape prosecution so long as two doctors had certified that the would-be suicide was terminally ill and yet capable of making a declaration; the traveller would also have to certify he had been told what the doctors had said and had decided to travel abroad for "assistance in dying".

Any two doctors would do - even if they had no experience of the terminal illness that they had certified. And it would make no difference if travellers lost mental capacity before going abroad - or even changed their minds after announcing their plans.

The defeated clause would not even have been confined to cases where the traveller was physically unable to commit suicide. And it would have limited the prosecutor's discretion to bring no charges in an appropriate case.

But the most unacceptable aspect to Lord Falconer's amendment was that it was hiding behind the skirts of countries, such as Switzerland, that condone assisted suicide. If it is right to help people kill themselves, then assisted suicide should be made legal in Britain. If it is not, then helping people to kill themselves abroad should not be legalised.

Absurdly, the Justice Minister Lord Bach said we would be "creating a situation where there is one law for those who can afford to go abroad for an assisted death and a different one for those who cannot". How many would-be suicides are put off by the prospect of a posthumous credit card bill?

As I say, the really interesting question is why Lord Falconer should ignore entreaties from the government of which he was once a member and push his amendment to its inevitable defeat.

Anyone would think he was annoyed with Gordon Brown for not giving him as much power and influence as that other loyal Blairite, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, First Secretary and Lord President of the Council, Lord Mandelson. Surely this isn't sour grapes?

 
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About Joshua Rozenberg

Joshua Rozenberg is an independent legal commentator who presents Law in Action on BBC Radio 4.

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