Douglas Noble on the Falconer report

Last year I blogged about the commission set up by Lord Falconer on assisted suicide.  It was clear from the outset that this commission was fatally flawed, not least because of the pro-assisted suicide stance of almost every member of the committee. 

Unsurprisingly the collection of evidence and hearings was unlikely to have a major impact given its biased beginnings. Most notably the British Medical Association refused to give evidence, and at the annual representative meeting in Cardiff in 2011, the association spoke clearly against the commission.

The report adds no value to previous parliamentary inquiries and the guidance of the director of public prosecutions. Assisted suicide, according to the report, is only to be permitted if a patient has less than 12 months to live. On the face of it this may appear workable, until the practicalities of establishing such a prognosis are explored. For example, consider the predicted outcome of Al Megrahi. 

Yet, one thing is certain, this debate is not going away despite parliament having ruled against legalising assisted suicide in 2006 and 2009. In political terms this issue is a dead duck – so why the continual fascination by a minority of vocal campaigners?  The answers are complex. 

Perhaps, though, it is ultimately because of an inability to accept that suffering is an integral part of our world, common to all who share the human condition. Dealing a fatal injection and dressing it up as dignity is not a solution to suffering and pain. High quality palliative care is part of the answer, but so too is the effect of the affection, love, and commitment (sometimes over long periods of time) that we can show to one another when the worst hand is dealt. 

The United Nations through article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seeks to ensure security in the event of sickness and disability. This is at the root of the argument that has convinced our leaders to desist from legalising assisted suicide: protection of ill, vulnerable, and disabled individuals from being put under pressure to die because they are made to feel they are a burden to society.

Douglas Noble has worked in surgery, emergency medicine, public health and for WHO. From 2006 to 2008 he was clinical adviser to the chief medical officer for England. You can follow him on twitter @douglasnobleMD