Lord Falconer, former lord chancellor, top justice official, in Tony Blair's government, and chairman of the Commission on Assisted Dying.
Credit: Peter Macdiarmid

The right to end one's life when suffering from a fatal illness is one of the most contentious moral debates of our time. It is an increasingly common one, as more and more people deal with the reality that medical science can prolong the lives of the terminally ill, but the quality of that extended life cannot be guaranteed.

It is also a legal issue, since many terminally ill people who wish to die need help with their suicides. Those who assist suicide in many countries can be prosecuted. As society has become more secular, religious strictures on suicide seem outdated. Yet it is religion that is the historical basis for laws against assisted suicide.

There are several countries in Europe which have grappled with the legal question and changed their laws. In the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland the terminally ill can end life at a time of their own choosing, so assisting them is not a crime. The law in Britain, however, is very strict. Those who help terminally ill loved ones end their lives can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

But a 400-page report published today calls for significant changes in British law that would allow people to end their lives without fear that those who help them will be prosecuted.

The report of The Commission on Assisted Dying, funded by novelist Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer's disease, and chaired by Lord Falconer, a former lord chancellor - the government's top lawyer - called for assisted suicide to be made legal provided, two doctors agreed that a person was terminally ill with less than a year to live, they were making the decision voluntarily, were not mentally ill and could take a fatal dose of medicine by themselves.

Falconer said British law was, "inadequate and incoherent," on the subject of assisted suicide, according to the Guardian.

There will be a fight to get even a small change to British law enacted. The Church of England's spokesman on health related issues, James Newsome, the Bishop of Carlisle said, "What Lord Falconer has done is to argue that it is morally acceptable to put many vulnerable people at increased risk so that the aspirations of a small number of individuals, to control the time, place and means of their deaths, might be met. Such a calculus of risk is unnecessary and wholly unacceptable.”

Besides the official church, resistance from conservatives and the evangelical right will be fierce.

The report was immediately attacked in the ultra-right wing Daily Mail by George Pitcher. Christian advocacy group Care, published a poll that, according to their website, "demonstrates that nearly half the population is concerned that if the option of ending one’s life was made legal, some people would feel pressured into killing themselves."

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