2010 has been an eventful year in the life of the debate about assisted dying. In February, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued guidelines outlining the public policy factors that should be considered when determining whether to prosecute a person for assisting the suicide of another.1 In the same month, the Suicide Act 1961 was amended by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which reframed the offences relating to helping another person to end their life. Now, rather than ‘aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another', a defendant will be liable if she intentionally ‘does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person’.2 Soon after the General Medical Council (GMC) published new guidance on medical decision-making at the end of life, Treatment and Care Towards the End of Life.3 Applicable explicitly within the existing legal framework, these guidelines locate the patient at the centre of end-of-life decision-making and operate according to presumptions in favour of prolonging life and that each individual patient has the capacity to decide for herself. At the back end of the year, virtually as this editorial was going to press, a new ‘pressure' group was launched. Healthcare Professionals for Change supports the wider campaign aims of Dignity in Dying that favour greater patient choice at the end of life based on the conviction that people ought not have to suffer against their wishes and should therefore, within appropriate safeguards, be able to choose an assisted death.4 And throughout the year, news reports featuring assisted dying cases and debates have appeared regularly in the media.5
Against this backdrop of regulatory change, opinion shift, and intense media coverage, this special issue of the Medical Law Review presents several papers that explore a range of issues relating to death and dying. Taken together, these papers shed light on the current legal position, the shape that any reform might take, and the reasons why legal reform permissive of assisted dying has been slow to emerge. That is not to say that this issue of the journal, or this editorial, is necessarily advocating permissive legal reform, but the papers presented clearly explore the legal approach to death and dying in the context of the ongoing debate about legal change. In doing so, all present challenges to the current legal regime and offer suggestions as to how and why it might adapt to contemporary concerns and influences.
John Coggon makes a cogent argument that end of life and death and dying cases have now assumed a significance that takes them beyond the confines of medical law so that they assume an identity of their own. He takes as his starting point the relationship between morality and law, arguing that although the law in this area, and certainly its analysis by legal scholars, explicitly rests on moral or ethical reasoning, it is in practice underpinned by an essentially political process which limits its capacity for change. In essence, he claims that founding arguments about death and dying on contested but entrenched moral claims of the kind characterised in medical law, and restricts any scope to resolve cases in a way which is regarded as anathema to either side of the debate. Of course, some would refute this stance, arguing that maintenance of the status quo intrinsically favours one moral view, but that is not fatal to Coggon's point. Instead, he uses this claim to argue that because end-of-life cases inevitably involve practical clinical issues rather than abstracted bioethical considerations, their resolution should be based upon political rather than moral analysis.
Doing so would certainly result in segregating end-of-life cases from other areas of medical law, though arguably not perhaps those involving resource allocation, but it would also have other consequences. Moral arguments in this sphere of medical law tend to revolve around principles such as autonomy, dignity, and sanctity of life which compete with one another depending on the standpoint of those making the argument. In contrast, politics is about the art of the possible governed by pragmatism. Consider for instance the adoption of the term double effect in relation to medical treatment at the end of life. Its usefulness and accuracy is generally much debated yet in practice its use, and disreputable connotations persist. However, in any other sphere of medicine, unintended side effects of treatment are regarded as just that, unintended side effects. Were we to re-characterise interventions that give rise to the spectre of double effect as merely necessary symptom control, their incidental effects would be seen in a different light.6 But reframing the debate in this way could be regarded as a political process designed to illicit specific, to some undesirable, outcomes.
Sofia Moratti's discussion of end-of-life decisions in Dutch neonatology reveals elements of a pragmatic political approach to death and dying in the Netherlands. She traces the development of the regulatory structures governing end-of-life decision-making in relation to infants in the context of medical advances that allow babies to survive who would previously have died. Her analysis draws upon the debate in the 1980s, initiated by Dutch neonatologists, parents, and the wider public, about when it was appropriate to commence, withhold, or cease life-prolonging medical treatments for severely ill babies. Three aspects of Moratti's analysis are of particular note. The first is that the legal approach to these decisions is predicated upon the application of sound ethical and practical professional guidance developed through experience of treating patients. Secondly, it is extremely difficult in practice to distinguish between different types of end-of-life decisions when dealing with the practicalities of caring for infants who are critically, perhaps terminally ill, and suffering. Her account resonates with examples where withholding or withdrawing treatment aside from palliation did not result in death, failed to control symptoms, and caused extended anguish for parents and child. She therefore advocates that the options available for the care of these infants be considered as part of an interconnected continuum both in practice and by the law and regulation. In addition, she cautions that there should be openness, dialogue, and cooperation about the realities of end-of-life decision-making so that accountability and understanding are promoted.
The case of Dr Munro discussed in the short paper by James Goodman further illustrates some of the difficulties and dilemmas faced by doctors treating babies for whom the beginning of life often inevitably leads to a painful and distressing ending. On compassionate grounds, Dr Munro acted to alleviate the suffering of two babies, and their parents, by administering a drug to hasten the death of both infants. Goodman uses this case to draw insightful conclusions about the shortcomings of the law in this area and raises concerns that this case ‘may well offer justification for other forms of “hastening death” or “euthanasia” based on arguments from compassion'. Whilst he finds this aspect of the case worrying, he also agrees with the outcome reached by the GMC Fitness to Practice panel, which pragmatically accepted that Dr Munro's conduct occurred in exceptional circumstances and declined to take further action.
It is arguable that this type of understanding and accountability lay at the heart of the publication of the DPP's guidelines on prosecutorial policy in respect of cases of encouraging or assisting suicide following Debbie Purdy's legal case to elicit clarity in the prosecuting process. However, Alexandra Mullock's examination of the implications of the published policy questions how effective it has been at achieving this goal. For Mullock, the guidelines focus on the ‘motive-centred approach, in which compassion is identified as the key determining factor'7 and she problematises this approach. More specifically, she is concerned that effectively decriminalising assisted suicide on the basis of apparently compassionate motives may not adequately safeguard the ‘victim'. The factors that tend to favour prosecution in the public interest do include consideration of the age, mental state, and the physical ability of the assisted person to act alone, but beyond that their focus is entirely upon the motivation of the assistor. Furthermore, any assessment of these factors is purely retrospective, thereby offering no protection to the ‘victim' prior to their death. Mullock is also concerned that in a democratic society, controversial moral dilemmas of the type associated with the legality of assisted suicide ought properly to be addressed by Parliament, rather than the DPP. In view of this, she concludes with the contention that ‘it may soon be impossible for the current legal fudge to endure'.
It is possible, however, that any changes to the practice, if not the regulation, of assisted dying may come from a direction other than the relationship between law and medicine. Suzanne Ost observes that ‘although assisted dying has been most commonly presented within a medicalised framework',8 recent examples indicate a distancing from this model. She uses the case of Debbie Purdy amongst others to suggest an increasing incidence of assistance coming from relatives or other lay people instead of healthcare professionals. Alongside this, she addresses non-medical methods of assisted dying and also the central question of whether, if assisted dying were to be legalised, it should only be available to people suffering from recognisable physical medical conditions. The issues are complex and convoluted, but after detailed scrutiny Ost acknowledges in a pragmatic conclusion that gives more than a nod to the political processes and influences involved that, as proved the case with abortion law, ‘any partially de-medicalised model of assisted dying may be more idealistic than realistic'.
Collectively, the papers compiled here may be thought to suggest that the law relating to death and dying is poised tantalisingly on the verge of a new horizon. Yet, it has seemed to be this way for a considerable time and relatively little has changed. In this environment, perhaps, John Coggon is right to suggest that confining the debate to the ethical restraints of medical law will simply stifle the argument, and that treating end-of-life decisions separately from medical law using a political and democratic approach would be more appropriate. Suzanne Ost's discussion of the apparent de-medicalisation of assisted dying may be an indication that on some levels this is already taking place, though this may simply be for want of a viable medical alternative. There are, however, dangers in explicitly politicising the issues. Death and taxes are said to be inevitable facts of life, but just as tax rates can change at political whim so perhaps could the manner and regulation of dying. Where the moral arguments point to perils for those who may be vulnerable and mediate the legal response accordingly, political arguments tend not only towards liberal democratic legitimacy but also to economic efficiency, which may be an unwelcome intervention in this debate. Moreover, none of the main political parties seem to be prepared to grapple with such a hot potato. Nevertheless, it seems likely that legal challenges to all aspects of this debate will continue. It is also feasible, however, that without reconceptualising the legal approach, the moral arguments will become further entrenched and that as it was in the beginning, so it will remain at the end. We live, and die, in interesting times.