Assisted suicide, once again being ventilated in the courts, is an ethical and legal minefield, and one incapable of easy resolution. Whilst we cling to the questionable belief that in a civilised society human life is sacred, then suicide will remain anathema. To the Catholic Church, it remains a mortal sin, on the basis that God giveth, and God taketh away. To the “Right to Life” lobby, and other interested parties, assisting another to commit suicide is nothing short of murder by any other name.

The dilemma facing the courts is not about euthanasia, although this too raises many serious ethical questions, and in the recent past, the courts have taken a very compassionate approach to all but the most egregious cases where the terminally ill or senile demented have been helped on their way by their loved ones.

But with euthanasia and assisted suicide, leaving aside the ethical questions, it’s all about knowing when the time is right, and this is the dilemma facing the courts in an attempt to clarify the situation. The person wishing to commit suicide today may change her mind tomorrow, by which time it would be too late.

The public stance of the medical profession, for the most part, remains opposed to the ending of life by whatever means whilst the patient is still breathing, so short of DNR, no help there. And of course there’s the occasional well documented miracle, witness the advancement up the beatification ladder towards sainthood of Cardinal Newman, one of ours no less, who has claimed vicariously the miraculous cure of an American supplicant suffering from terminal cancer of the spine. An odd choice, you might think, deep in the sun belt, but who am I to question the wonders of the Almighty?

For the time being at least, those who want to commit suicide ‘with dignity’ beat a path to Switzerland, where they have a special clinic. But to avoid any repercussions from their own licensing authority, this clinic insists that the enrolees are sufficiently of sound mind at the time of departure to know what they are doing, and as importantly, to be able to take the medication by their own hand. These requirements are of little comfort to the terminally ill, who may be suffering from a debilitating disease which makes these requirements impossible to fulfil.

For the life of me [if you’ll forgive the pun], I cannot understand why the criminal law needs to get involved in this distressing area of life and death. The Act in question is the Suicide Act 1961, carrying with it the draconian sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment for those who assist another’s suicide. I can just remember 1961, but I can’t connect the two. What was happening in 1961 to bring about this misconceived legislation? I remember it was towards the end of Harold MacMillan’s tenure of high office, “SuperMac” as he was known in the popular press, and he who coined the phrase “you’ve never had it so good.” I also remember his resignation two years later, on the grounds of ill health, although he went on to live to a ripe old age, became the Earl of Stockton, wherever that is, and had a son who sold Highgrove House to HRH. Did “SuperMac” fear some Machiavellian plot to offer him the poisoned chalice for the good of the Party? I know not, but if anybody out there can throw light on the origins of the Act, then feel free to share it with us.

If the elderly, or infirm, or terminally ill, or senile demented, shake off their mortal coil in suspicious circumstances, then by all means bring in Plod. Rest assured that thorough checks are made on the deceased, as somebody in authority and with the necessary medical qualifications has to sign the death certificate. In suspicious circumstances, there will be a post mortem, so if the assisted suicide turns out to be murder most foul, that is the time to invoke the criminal law. In all other cases, leave those who remain behind to grieve their loss with the same dignity as those who have departed.




Nothing I read today [18th October] about the assisted suicide of Daniel James changes my opinion one iota. Such a pity that they had to travel to Switzerland. Time for a long hard look at our laws and the way we treat those most in need of our help.