A rare display of political courage

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The Article

In a rare display of political courage, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown defied public opinion in Britain, by reiterating his firm opposition to the legalization of euthanasia.

In England, as in Canada, the law now clearly provides that anyone who aids, abets or counsels another person to commit suicide is guilty of a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment for up to 14 years. In Britain, a recent poll found that more than 80 per cent of the people believe this law should be amended “to allow some people such as doctors and/or close relatives to assist a suicide in particular circumstances.”

Brown disagrees. In an article in The Daily Telegraph on Feb. 24, he noted that many people who support assisted suicide are misinformed. They do not understand that a patient already has a right in law to refuse any medical treatment and that the law as applied by the caring professions “supports good care, including palliative care for the most difficult of conditions.”

Having worked with his wife as a volunteer in a hospice, Brown attested: “I know in my heart that there is such a thing as a good death. And I believe it is our duty as a society to provide the skilled and loving care that makes it possible; and to use the laws we have well, rather than rush to change them.”

Granted, the quality of palliative care in Britain, as in Canada, is sometimes woefully inadequate. Brown warns that legalizing assisted suicide is not the answer: It would “fundamentally change the way we think about mortality.

“The risk of pressures – however subtle – on the frail and the vulnerable, who may feel their existences burdensome to others, cannot ever be entirely excluded. And the inevitable erosion of trust in the caring professions – if they were in a position to end life – would be to lose something very precious.”

Over the past 80 years, the British Parliament has many times considered and, after thorough consideration, rejected proposals to legalize assisted suicide. That does not sit well with Debby Purdy, a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis. In an attempt to do an end run around Parliament, she appealed to the courts for a ruling that she has a human right to know that her husband will not be prosecuted if he helps her to kill herself by traveling to a legal euthanasia clinic in Switzerland.

In the similar Rodriguez case in 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada came within one vote of striking down the Canadian law on assisted suicide on the grounds that handicapped Canadians have an equality right to assistance in killing themselves. The British courts are not so high handed: In a ruling last August for the Lords of Appeal in Purdy, Lord Hope of Craighead stated: “It must be emphasised at the outset that it is no part of our function to change the law in order to decriminalise assisted suicide. If changes are to be made, as to which I express no opinion, this must be a matter for Parliament.”

Nonetheless, Lord Hope ordered Keith Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales, to clarify the guidelines governing the prosecution of persons who assist in a suicide. In compliance with this order, Starmer issued a new set of guidelines last week that were welcomed by Purdy but stopped well short of providing her with the assurance she was seeking.

That’s as it should be. Crown prosecutors have no more right than the courts to fail to uphold the law as enacted and intended by Parliament in compliance with the Constitution.

Brown is heading into an inevitable general election within the next few weeks. Win or lose, he can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that in dealing with the vital issue of euthanasia, he exercised his best judgment about what is right and best for the British people rather than allow his conduct to be governed by the latest vagaries of misinformed public opinion.

Rory Leishman
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