Questions asked over impartiality of assisted suicide commission


Concerns have been raised over the impartiality of a commission set up to examine possible changes in the law on assisted suicide after it emerged that at least eight of its 12 members have backed legalisation.

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 told Disability News Service (DNS) that he too is in favour of legalisation, “given safeguards that would prevent abuse or pressure”.

This week, at the launch of The Commission on Assisted Dying, Lord Falconer announced the names of his 11 fellow commissioners.

Lord [Ian] Blair, the former Metropolitan police commissioner; the Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt; Baroness [Elaine] Murphy, a vice-president of the Alzheimer’s Society; Baroness [Barbara] Young, chief executive of Diabetes UK; and Sir Graeme Catto, a former president and chair of the General Medical Council, have all expressed support for legalisation.

Dr Carole Dacombe, medical director of St Peter’s Hospice in Bristol, has also suggested that she backed legalisation – when giving evidence to a Lords committee in 2005 – but now says that she is “yet to come to a definite conclusion about this”.

Dr Stephen Duckworth, apparently the only disabled member of the commission, told DNS he had changed his mind twice on the issue.

He had opposed a change in the law, but told Disability Now magazine last year that he backed legalisation.

He said he was now undecided, although he was “not satisfied or happy with the current situation in law”, but wanted to make a decision on the evidence presented to the commission.

This means that at least eight of the 12 commissioners have in the past supported a change in the law.

When challenged on the commission’s impartiality by Dr Peter Saunders, director of the Care Not Killing alliance, Lord Falconer said the commissioners had been chosen for their “calibre”, were all “independent, straightforward, honest”, and would provide an “objective, dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the issues”.

Kitty Ussher, director of Demos, the think-tank which is “hosting” the commission, said its work would be “100 per cent grassroots evidence-based”.

When asked how the commission could be impartial when both its funders and its chair backed legalisation, while Dignity in Dying set it up, and at least eight of its members had at one time backed legalisation, a Demos spokeswoman said: “I can assure you that all of the commissioners are very, very keen for this to be an independent, dispassionate, objective commission.”

But Demos admitted that the commissioners had been chosen “by Demos in discussion with Lord Falconer”.

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who was present at the launch as an observer and has spoken previously of her “huge concerns” about legalisation, said she would be looking for more information about the independence of the commissioners.

She said she would like to give evidence to the commission, and added: “I do worry that disabled people will be pushed into a corner, will be made to feel they are useless and will be encouraged towards assisted suicide.”

She said her concern was over the impact of legalisation on those disabled people who “do not feel empowered” and “can’t fight for themselves”.

One commissioner who has spoken out against legalisation is Professor Sam Ahmedzai, a specialist in palliative medicine, while Dame Denise Platt, a former chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, told DNS that she had “no pre-existing position”.

Another member, Celia Grandison-Markey, a former nurse tutor and NHS academic registrar and now interim chair of the Patients Association, did not reply to questions put through the association.

The final member, the Rev Canon Dr James Woodward, canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, was unavailable to comment.

The commission plans to publish its report within a year, with the first of six evidence sessions set to take place on 14 December.

2 December 2010