A Necessary Victory
flickr / Brian Wolfe
A Necessary Victory

A Necessary Victory

A Necessary Victory: The Campaign Against The Marris Bill

Peter D Williams FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2015

Peter D. Williams of Right to Life reviews a major recent Parliamentary debate and its significance.

I had hoped for a quiet Summer. From late July to early September, Parliament shuts down for Summer Recess, and MPs return to their constituencies and enjoy a holiday. This usually means that political campaigners get something of a quieter period too, and in the case of those campaigning for the right to life this would have been particularly welcome.

The last six months before the General Election saw a good deal of political activity on ‘life’ issues. A Ten Minute Rule Bill introduced by Fiona Bruce MP turned into an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, and there was much work to try to mobilise the support of right-to-lifers on that issue, as indeed on the Government regulations allowing embryo-exploitative and destructive ‘mitochondrial donation’ techniques. The votes for both of these, rather unhelpfully, happened within a day of each other. Then there was the long campaign to inform voters – at least as far as possible – about the beliefs of parliamentary candidates on life issues for the Election itself.

A New Battle?

After all that, the political campaigning wing of the right-to-life movement could have used a break, but this was not to be. Within a month of the first Queen’s Speech of the new Parliament, an MP called Rob Marris came top of the ballot for Private Members’ Bills (by which individual MPs are given time to introduce legislation of their own), and he chose to make his Bill one that would introduce assisted suicide. So began a new battle for the human right to life in 2015.

The lobby for assisted suicide has repeatedly attempted to pass their desired legislation over the last ten years. Up to now, this has focused on the House of Lords. First came Lord Joffe’s two attempts to pass an assisted suicide Bill in the early-to-mid Noughties, then an attempted amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer of Thoroton in 2009. This also failed, but Lord Falconer decided to introduce a new Bill in the last Parliament. This progressed all the way to Committee Stage until it ran out of time (when one Parliament ends, all Bills that have not been passed must be re-presented and start again in the next Parliament). The Bill as it currently stands is so far down the legislative list, that it has no chance of progressing in the current session.

This is why Rob Marris decided to introduce his own assisted suicide Bill. I say ‘his own’, but while he took it through the House of Commons, the content of it was Falconer through-and-through. From the limitation of offering assisted suicide to terminally-ill patients whose prognosis is only six months of life, to the so-called ‘safeguard’ of having two doctors check the patient has a “clear, settled, and voluntary” wish to die (and, er, as we all know, a two doctor requirement was such a powerful safeguard in the Abortion Act!) – the Marris Bill was essentially Falconer redux.

 The Strategy

The strategy of this proposal, in Marris as in Falconer, was to be so perceivably moderate and inoffensive that it got through the law-making process. If Parliamentarians could be convinced that assistance in suicide would only be available to a few very needy people who are suffering intolerably, and that sufficient ‘safeguards’ would be put in place to obviate abuses, then they might have comfortably passed such legislation into the statute books. Such an event would have made passing it through the Lords much easier, especially since Peers had already seen these proposals and have a tendency to give favour to the elected House’s decisions.

The danger of this strategy was precisely in its insidious pseudo-moderation. Once you grant the principle that a terminally-ill person has the ‘right to die’ – or more accurately, given that suicide was decriminalised in 1961, the positive right to be enabled to kill themselves – then there is no reason why this right should be restricted to the terminally-ill alone. If someone whose life is about to end has the right to an assisted suicide, then why not a severely disabled person, or someone who is clinically depressed?

What About the Hardest Cases?

Indeed, if the core of the right to die, rather that the choice to die, is actualised, then why should it not also apply to those whose conditions make their situations the hardest of hard cases – people who are ‘locked in’ to their own bodies like Tony Nicklinson or Paul Lamb? Yet such people cannot ever end their own lives, due to their debilitating condition. They would need euthanasia (for their doctor to kill them), and this is precisely the ultimate goal of many advocates of the current law.

Clearly then, ‘Dignity in Dying’ (formerly, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), the lobby group at the centre of efforts to introduce assisted suicide, believed that the Falconer provisions contained the winning legislative formula that would have allowed them to get them this first crucial foothold in the law. Yet putting it through the Commons now was also a risk on their part. That House had not looked at this issue for almost twenty years, and if the Marris Bill were defeated, and especially if it were defeated heavily, this would not only render any efforts of theirs in the House of Lords essentially superfluous, but that their agenda would be defeated for potentially a whole generation. A new assisted suicide proposal could hardly be brought up too soon if the issue had been decided by the elected House comparatively recently.

How the Bill Was Defeated

Indeed, given that Rob Marris’s winning of the Private Member’s Ballot was sheer chance, this is certainly not something that the assisted suicide lobby had planned. They were being carried by circumstance, and given the potential price of failure, this had the possibility to be a providential development for the right-to-life cause.

In the end, that is exactly what it became. The Bill was defeated by 330 votes to 118. An emphatic rejection of the Marris/Falconer proposals, and of assisted suicide itself, it was a brilliant victory for the right-to-life movement. It was also surprising: had you asked me about our chances, I would have forecast a small victory of maybe 30-50 votes. I had hoped, at best, for a 100-vote majority. To get 212 was quite simply wonderfully astonishing.

What was key to this brilliant victory was that Members of Parliament heard the voice of their constituents. Initially, MPs had noted to us that they had been getting many more communications from constituents in favour of assisted suicide than against. That changed over the Summer, as more people began to hear about the issues involved, and the Church played an important role in this. 

Important Groups

In terms of public perception, the most important groups working against Marris were those who could be most profoundly harmed by the proposed legislation: the elderly, and the disabled. Towards the end of the Parliamentary session before the recess, a lobby was organised in Portcullis House (the office building many MPs use just across Bridge Street, overlooking the Thames) by Not Dead Yet UK, in which disabled activists invited their MPs to discuss assisted suicide with them. It had a good turn-out, and emphasised to MPs the concerns that vulnerable people have towards a practice that would enable subtle pressure to be exerted on vulnerable people to die, even if only after being extended in the future. It was profoundly helpful that the leading disability groups, Scope and Disability Rights UK, are strong opponents of assisted suicide (as are Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association).

Building on Our Advantages

The speaker at this event was Liz Carr, the disabled star of ‘Silent Witness’, who as a stand-up comedienne gave a powerful speech against assisted suicide. She is one of many public figures who also has precisely the right credentials to be a credible public opponent of the ‘right-to-die’ lobby. Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton (disability rights activist, and former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), Baroness Grey-Thompson (former Gold-medal paralympian), Lady Finlay of Llandaff (leading palliative care specialist and President of the British Medical Association), and Lord Carlisle of Berriew (one of the UK’s top QCs and legal experts) are all either atheist or agnostic, and tend to be in favour of legalised abortion. Aside from their obvious professional achievements and expertise, the fact that they cannot be dismissed as being ‘religious’ or dogmatic right-to-lifers gives them credibility in our secular (and frequently secularist) political and media culture.

These advantages notwithstanding, the campaign for assisted suicide cannot be underestimated. They have money, celebrity backing, and great resources. Ultimately, it was the efforts of the people who wrote to their MPs and urged them to turn up and oppose the Marris Bill, and the public witness of groups like Not Dead Yet UK, that led the House of Commons to recognise the need to safeguard the rights and dignity of vulnerable people. By the Grace of God, our busy summer was not in vain.

Faith Magazine