A necessary fudge?

Assisted suicide should be illegal but tacitly permitted -- not legal under certain rigorously-enfor

An unofficial commission headed by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, is proposing changes in the law to allow doctors to assist a terminally ill person to take their own life, provided that certain conditions are met. For example, that the dying person is mentally competent and has less than 12 months to live.

In response, a statement from the Church of England, by the Bishop of Carlisle, draws attention to the "self-appointed" nature of the commission and suggests that it "excluded from its membership anyone with a known objection to assisted suicide." And it supports the status quo.

The present law strikes an excellent balance between safeguarding hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people and treating with fairness and compassion those few people who, acting out of selfless motives, have assisted a loved one to die.

The law itself is quite clear, however: assisting a suicide is illegal, and punishable with up to 14 years in prison. In some cases relatives have faced prosecution not for assisted suicide but for murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence. Any "balance" is confined to an official statement, introduced last year in response to the Debbie Purdy case, of the circumstances under which the law might not be enforced.

From a logical point of view, this is indefensible. It also offers only quailifed protection to those who would assist a dying relative. It implies that they will probably not be prosecuted, but they still know that they are breaking the law and that they are running a risk, however remote, that the CPS might take a stricter view in their own case. And can it really be good in principle to keep a law on the statute book when there is a codified public policy of disregarding it?

Perhaps it's not too surprising to find the Church of England supporting an unprincipled and hypocritical fudge, especially when that fudge also represents the status quo. Unwilling to condemn assisted suicide outright on the grounds that it is for God alone to take away life, the bishop concentrates instead on the practical issue of whether more "vulnerable people" would be put under pressure by a change in the law to take their own lives. He claims that the commission has "singularly failed to demonstrate" that its proposals would not place vulnerable people at greater risk.

But that question was a major concern for Falconer's commission, which concluded (albeit with a dissenting opinion from a clergyman on the panel) that it would be possible to devise sufficient safeguards. Any new system, the report stressed, must have such considerations "at its heart."

So the debate hasn't really progressed. Everyone seems to agree that the sticking point is whether vulnerable people would be put under pressure by a change in the law. Everyone agrees that putting vulnerable people under pressure is a bad thing to do: at least, it's not being argued even by strong supporters of legalised assisted suicide or euthanasia that in some cases people ought to be put under pressure to end their own lives (to save scarce NHS resources, for example, or to help emotionally-burdened family members to move on with their own lives). Yet the implied pressure is present even in the suspicion that it might exist.

The present state of the law, on the other hand, might be said to place quite a different pressure on vulnerable people who are terminally ill and wish to end their own lives: the pressure not to ask for help and so expose their family members or medical staff to legal jeopardy.

It's assumed -- on what evidence? -- that if the law were changed, terminally ill patients might feel themselves under pressure to agree to be "suicided" by their relatives, or perhaps by their doctors and that safeguards must be put in place to counteract this. In other words, both sides in this debate show a marked suspicion of the motives of the very people most intimately concerned with the welfare of the terminally ill, their next of kin and those professionally charged with their care. Both sides would rather place their faith in a set of impersonal (and somewhat inflexible) laws and regulations, in the form either of statute or of the existing guidelines, which by their nature must give rise to anomalies and inconsistencies.

Indeed, the commission's proposals -- and this, I think, is a serious objection to them -- would replace the current fudge with a highly bureaucratic, box-ticking approach. Patients would have to prove that they were not depressed -- although someone in constant pain with only weeks to live might be said to have every reason to be depressed -- and be required to prove their resolution over a two-week cooling-off period. There would be forms to be filled in, monitoring systems to be implemented (and funded: OfDeath, anyone?), compulsory counselling to be provided.

Some doctors would not wish to co-operate with these procedures -- possibly not even some doctors who at present will surreptitiously up the morphine levels of dying patients. I can even foresee the emergence of a cadre of specialist death-doctors, whose adherence to the spirit of the Hippocratic oath is reflected in their daily violation of its cardinal principle to "first, do no harm".

So what is the answer? I must admit to being torn. I support autonomy for the individual, up to and including the right to take one's own life (even for people who are not terminally ill). But once you institutionalise the process of suicide it begins to seem routine, normalised, an option that presents itself, or is presented, to the dying as a matter of course. And that begins to subvert the basic principles of medicine as they are publicly professed and believed in. Transparency and logic are achieved at the expense of discretion, privacy and that sense of the numinous that should properly surround issues of life and death.

So in the end I'm with the fudge. But it should be a proper fudge. Assisted suicide should be illegal but tacitly permitted, not legal under certain rigorously-enforced (and somewhat arbitrary) conditions and banned under all others, as Falconer seems to want. That would be in the interests neither of those who want to preserve life, nor even of those who want to die.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear