New concerns over impartiality of assisted suicide commission


New concerns have been raised about the impartiality of a commission set up to examine the possible legalisation of assisted suicide.

Disability News Service revealed in December that at least eight of the 12 commissioners have in the past supported a change in the law to allow some kind of assisted suicide.

But further concerns have emerged after one of the commissioners, Celia Grandison-Markey – who is not one of the eight highlighted previously – revealed during a commission evidence session that she had delivered a paper on end of life care at an event organised by the Royal College of Nursing.

Grandison-Markey, interim chair of the Patients Association, has declined to provide details of what she said in her paper, and the Patients Association has also declined to comment.

If Grandison-Markey had expressed support for legalisation in the paper, this would mean nine of the 12 commissioners had previously backed a change in the law, and would cast even greater doubt on the body’s impartiality.

Demos, the think-tank which is “hosting” the Commission on Assisted Dying, and helped choose its members, has also refused to answer questions about the paper.

A Demos spokeswoman said it was “not for Demos to comment on reports or statements made by commissioners, nor to make comments on their behalf, especially when it concerns their work before joining the Commission on Assisted Dying”.

When it was pointed out that Demos helped choose its membership, she refused to comment, and added: “I would love to be able to help you with that, but I am afraid on this request I have done all I can.”

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, convenor of Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), a network of disabled people that opposes a change in the law, said that if three-quarters of the commission had previously expressed support for legalisation it would destroy the body’s credibility.

The commission is chaired by the former Labour minister Lord Falconer and part-funded by the author Terry Pratchett, who have both been outspoken in calling for legalisation, while it was set up by the pro-assisted suicide charity Dignity in Dying.

The other co-funder, Bernard Lewis, founder of the high street retail chain River Island, has said that he too is in favour of legalisation, “given safeguards that would prevent abuse or pressure”.

NDY UK said Lewis had “not yet detailed how such safeguards might even be possible, especially when they would need to cover every possible human motivation in every individual case”.

Baroness Campbell has written to the commission to say that it would be “entirely inappropriate” for her or NDY UK to give evidence because the commission is “biased” in favour of changing the law.

She said that “those few disabled people who are campaigning for a change in the law are understandably afraid of what they will face, especially in the light of cuts to health and social services”.

She added: “We realise that those fears are not groundless – but this ‘commission’ should be giving thought to how to alleviate such fears through reassurance, protection and support.

“That would do a much greater, indeed an invaluable service to all disabled people, rather than this narrow, damaging insistence on changing law.”

Only one member of the commission, Professor Sam Ahmedzai, a specialist in palliative medicine, appears to have spoken out against legalisation.

Dr Stephen Duckworth – the commission’s only disabled member – originally opposed a change in the law, but has since changed his mind and publicly backed legalisation, although he now claims he is undecided.

2 March 2011