04 July 2018

Magna Carta and assisted dying

In 2015, I took an online course on The Magna Carta and its Legacy.  This was presented by my alma mater, Royal Holloway University of London, using the Coursera online platform, to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the original charter.  

The concluding assignment on the course was to write a clause for a modern Magna Carta that addresses the pressing issues and defends the rights that matter to me, and a written motion to persuade others that my clause should be adopted.   The total length was required to be 240 - 270 words - challenging for the topic that I chose, assisted dying.  

This subject continues in public debate, including a fine article by Alice Thomson, We need to talk about assisted dying, in The Times of 4th July 2018.  Some things have progressed - Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, India, six US states  and from next year Victoria in Australia have now allowed doctors to prescribe a barbiturate drug to bring a life to a peaceful end.  Sadly, our own House of Commons rejected such legislation three years ago.  It's time that they re-examined the question.  Here are my proposed clause and motion:

Medical practitioners shall be empowered to prescribe life-ending drugs to mentally competent adults who wish to end unbearable suffering, loss of dignity or of autonomy caused by terminal illness. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 'a Magna Carta for our age', bans torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Since its adoption in 1948, medical science has advanced so that it can treat many common diseases. However, we all die eventually. End-of-life palliative care is often appropriate and effective, but for some, physical and mental suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life, cannot be prevented. Patients may endure years while 'nature takes its course'. 

This proposal gives the sick the confidence and the freedom that they need not face endless suffering. 

This is a difficult, emotive argument. Some religious groups hold that all life is sacred; only natural processes or divine intervention should determine the time of death. Others hold that members of religions may make a conscientious decision not to utilise a legal freedom, but should not stop others making their own choice. 

Opponents also fear a 'slippery slope' that could extend beyond the tight scope of consenting, mentally competent, terminally-ill adults. Several states have enacted assisted-dying laws, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Washington, Oregon and Vermont. All have monitored the effects carefully; public opinion remains largely in favour. None of the states has chosen to extend its legislative scope. 

In Britain, the public is heavily pro (82% according to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey) but lawmakers are cautious. Australia has no current proposals; Canada's Parliament will consider legislation during its current session. 

That was 2015, and now is 2018.  Of course Brexit is top of most politicians' agendas, but surely Parliament should look again before long.

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