Letting the Genie out of the bottle?
One lesson that should be remembered is that once any such law is past there is almost no way to go back. The Abortion Act, passed 47 years ago, has totally changed british attitudes towards abortion. It has normalised it and made it far less taboo option for women who find themselves pregnant. I am not saying this is a bad thing - arguably thousands of women have been liberated by not having to have an unwanted child.
It could well be the case that a law enabling assisted dying would have the same impact - could dying early become normalised or even expected? This might put extreme pressure on the old and vulnerable. Equally, it might liberate people who feel like a burden and free families from looking after an ill relative for years or decades. Whatever the outcome, just as one could not imagine modern Britain without abortion, so the country would be changed forever, for better or worse, by such a law.
A “Slippery Slope”?
When the Abortion Act was debated in the 1960’s there was little expectation that so many abortions would be performed and yet a huge number has been the reality - 189,931 in 2013. In a debate on the issue on the Today Programme this morning (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0499n5z - 1hr 56 mins) Lord Falconer tentatively predicted that the figure in the UK, if it matched the statistics from the State of Oregon, would be about 1,600 people every year. Indeed he said “there would be no slippery slope”. Does the Abortion comparison show us that such a prediction is rather dangerous? Or are the two not comparable?
Two doctors providing a safeguard?
Another striking similarity between the two cases is that two doctors are required by law to authorise an abortion and the Assisted Dying Bill would demand the same safeguard. The intention of the “two doctor rule” was a good one, to protect doctors from prosecution and ensure that the process would only go on legitimately.
However, the reality 47 years on is that in many cases the doctors work for the same clinic whose sole income and raison d'etre is to perform abortions. There is no way in reality that one is going to prevent the other from going ahead. Indeed, some are now calling for the removal of this provision (Hall, p6). Would we see the same eventually in assisted dying? Would this safeguard become defunct?
Preserve of the rich?
A final comparison is the similarity in availability of assisted dying today in Britain and Abortion pre-1967. Before the abortion act it was the preserve of wealthy to hire private doctors (Hall, p4) whilst the poor had to resort to risky “backstreet” abortions. The act made this much more egalitarian and gave access to many more people - this resulted in fewer unnecessary deaths.
Similarly, the wealthy can still travel to countries such as Switzerland if they wish to die; Dignitas alone claim that 694 people traveled from the UK in 2009 (The Guardian). Those not wealthy enough to enlist the help of such organisations have to risk prosecution here at home and only have amatuer skills to perform the act. Legalising it might have the same egalitarian effect and arguably be more compassionate?
The Weakness of any analogy
As I said at the start of this post - this analogy may not be a good one, but I hope it has highlighted some interesting debates.
Memorandum submitted to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry: Scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 September 2007, Lesley A. Hall http://www.historyandpolicy.org/docs/abortion_act_1967.pdf
Assisted suicide statistics: the numbers Dignitas helps to die, by country, Simon Rodgers, 2010 http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/feb/25/assisted-suicide-dignitas-statistics