POLITICS MICHAEL WHITE
MPs aren’t always dumb; in fact, they’re sensibly cowardly on some occasions. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ was the motto of Sir Robert Walpole, our first and longest- serving premier. You only have to remember what happens over bursts of legislative hyper-activism like the Dangerous Dogs Act or football ID cards to realise how wise old Bob was.
So it will be fascinating to see if the trial of Dr David Moor, the GP cleared last week of murdering an 84-year-old cancer patient, provokes any response from the Mother of Parliaments. Though Dr Evan Harris, the medico-Lib Dem MP for Oxford West, went on Radio 4’s Today to declare himself pro-euthanasia, colleagues were quick to stress that he spoke personally.
Dr Harris has an excuse. ‘He’s amazingly clever - amazing brain power between those ears,’ as one MP puts it. But what about the rest of the gang? As everyone must know by now, the law in Britain says that euthanasia is illegal and so is doctor-assisted suicide, the technique that got Jack ‘Dr Death’ Kevorkian convicted of murder in the US last year and British doctor Nigel Cox done for attempted murder in 1992.
Aiding and abetting suicide also carries a 14-year term in the slammer. But there is pressure, as the Moor case shows, on the ambiguity inherent in the doctrine of ‘double effect’, by which it is OK to relieve pain if it carries the incidental risk of hastening death, but not if the dose is meant to carry that effect. Diamorphine - heroin - is the usual drug of choice, as it was for the flamboyant Dr Moor, whose ‘300 death’ boast got him into court.
This government, like its predecessor, is against change. So is the British Medical Association, though not most doctors. A Lords committee came out against any change, too. I should note here that it took the lateral mind of Richard (Private Eye) Ingrams to notice that, though the late, great actor, Dirk Bogarde, favoured euthanasia, he hung on to life himself as long as possible.
That is true. Around the developed world, public opinion seems to be moving towards a position of overwhelming support for mercy-killing, as the euphemism goes, even in the US, to the distress of pro-lifers. But most people don’t regard themselves as being close to death. Old folk (peers among them), all too aware that the Last Bus is coming, are the only group against it.
We shall all find out sooner or later. Personally, I have a deep horror of hanging around being a costly nuisance to my loved ones, a pain to myself and a burden to the NHS. I always keep any Euthanasia Society leaflets or would-be DIY kits, just in case. Mozart, pills and a bottle of Scotch is the working plan. But… not yet.
Of all the euthanasia stories which pulled me up with a shock last week, the most chilling came from The Times’ medical man, Dr Tom Stuttaford. He recalled how he had increased the dose of diamorphine for an old friend with lung cancer, albeit in consultation with his doctor children. ‘He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Tommy, that dose was too much, you have killed me.” And he had. There and then.
When I spoke to David Hinchliffe, chair of the Commons health select committee, he said he had followed the Moor case with great interest, his own mother having died in difficult circumstances. It might become so big an issue that the committee would take a look. But not now.
I suspect that Catholic pro-lifer Ann Widdecombe, and her libertarian deputy spokesman, Alan Duncan, might fall out over this one. No incentive for debate there. And when I spoke to Dr Peter Brand, the Lib Dem Isle of Wight GP, he was for the status quo, too. But he was gloomy. Idealists like Sir Ludovic Kennedy may want change. So do pro-lifers - in the opposite direction, he said.
What Brand fears is not just the ‘slippery slope’ effect seen in the Netherlands since decriminalisation occurred in 1984, but de- professionalisation of his own trade, as central regulation and a desire to avoid risk slowly undermine the doctor-patient relationship of trust which brought him into medicine. ‘We are becoming medical tradesmen,’ he mused. Selfishly, I hadn’t thought of that.