In the recent court judgement on Tony Nicklinson’s challenge to the current law on euthanasia Lord Justice Toulson quoted from the report of the Falconer Commission on Assisted Dying on a number of occasions. He said that it ‘contains an interesting analysis of arguments and views, but it would not be right for the court to treat it as having some form of official or quasi-official status’ (para 24).
The work of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has also been quoted by judges, in the European Court of Human Rights as well as in the UK Supreme Court, and it is worth reflecting on why it deserves consideration. It may be reasonable for courts to place more weight on official reports if their task is to establish the will of Parliament when interpreting the law. However, healthy public debate should be most concerned about the quality of ideas and arguments.
In our recent strategic plan, we have set out some of the characteristics that we believe should be the hallmarks of our contributions to public debate on matters of bioethics. They should be rigorous, reliant on the best available evidence and supported by careful and comprehensible analysis, and rational, in the sense that we can explain coherently the reasons for the positions that we take. They should be based on learning and listening – from the wide range of views presented to us and from the many disciplines that can help us to understand the ramifications of opportunities and technologies in biology and medicine. Above all they should be of high quality – drawing on the highest level of expertise to deliver the highest possible standards of work.
We believe we have an advantage over some of our colleagues in national ethics committees in that we do not need to be representative of the range of groups in society. This independence enables us to concentrate on the quality of reason – the arguments given, the evidence relied upon, and the robustness of the conclusions drawn – rather than the views of funders (a challenge made by some to the Falconer Commission because it was funded by prominent supporters of the liberalisation of the law) or of a particular view or approach to bioethics.
The Court used of the Falconer Commission’s report in a number of different ways. It quoted some of its conclusions as evidence of areas of concern. Here the quality of argument was crucial in determining the influence of the Commission. However, it saw it as even more significant as a useful source for the range of views current in society – a proxy for surveying them directly. In some cases (representations to the Commission by Tony Nicklinson himself and also the Director of Public Prosecutions) they were important accounts from key personnel that were considered at some length.
In similar ways, the support of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics for public discussion comes both from the quality of its reasoning and also the way in which the evidence it receives when considering issues becomes readily available to the public. We set out to facilitate as well as inform public debate in the belief that openness and transparent debates will more often lead to high quality reasons for opinion and action.