Today the House of Commons considered Mr Marris's Private Member's bill, which sought to license doctors to supply lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who are thought to meet certain conditions in order to enable them to take their own lives. As on other occasions when Parliament has addressed this difficult subject, it was a lively debate with strongly-held views advanced on both sides of the debate. After some four and a half hours the House divided over the question of whether the bill should be given a Second Reading - ie whether it should proceed to its next stage. The bill was rejected by 330 votes to 118.
This result is hardly surprising. While it is possible to take differing views on the principle of whether Parliament should be licensing assistance with suicide, the bill itself was seriously - and patently - deficient. It contained no safeguards, only vaguely-worded conditions, with no minimum measures mandated to ensure that these conditions were met. It also rested on criteria, such as diagnosis of terminal illness and prognosis of six months or less to live which are not only difficult to establish with any degree of precision but are also entirely arbitrary - and which for that reason would have offered little resistance to subsequent attempts to expand them. And, as a number of MPs noted, most doctors would have been unwilling to participate in assisting patients' suicides even if the bill were to be passed into law.
We do not doubt the sincerity of the motives of those advocating such a change in the law. But they must understand that, if they are to persuade Parliament to their point of view, they must advance clear and cogently-argued evidence that the law in this area is in need of change and that what they would put in its place would be better. No such evidence has been presented.
Baroness Finlay's Access to Palliative Care Bill, currently awaiting its Second Reading in the House of Lords, adopts a different - and positive - approach to relieving distress among people who are terminally ill - namely, to ensure that the high-quality palliative care which exists in Britain is available to everyone who needs it. Here, rather than in providing the means for suicide, is where action is needed in Parliament.