Happy New Year.
I was listening to the radio the other morning when Esther Rantzen came on. She revealed that she is receiving treatment for stage four lung cancer which is terminal and she said that she has joined Dignitas, the organisation that runs the assisted dying clinic in Switzerland. She is campaigning for a change in the law to allow people in her situation to choose the moment and manner of their passing.
I realise that this is a subject that divides public opinion and many of those of faith are very strongly opposed to any change in the law. I have enormous respect for this view and like many moral questions there are lots of things to weigh in the balance, but I have to say that I agree with Dame Esther.
I wrote about this issue briefly in my column almost a decade ago and quite a number of constituents have written to me over the years calling for a change in the law, but since the debate has now returned, I thought I might set out my views in a bit more detail.
For a long time I felt very torn about this. On the one hand, I am resolutely opposed to anything that might lead elderly or disabled people to be pressured by their families or others to bring their lives to an end; that would be wholly wrong. On the other hand, there are a number of cases in which people with terminal illnesses, often very distressing, want to be able to choose the moment of their leaving of this world. Reflecting on my own experience of family members who have been terminally ill, I would have wished that option to be available to them if that was what they wanted.
It is worth pointing out that we do, in practice, currently permit assisted dying as long as people have the money to be able to travel to the Dignitas clinic. It is obviously a matter of their own free choice, but assisting in the suicide of an individual remains a criminal offence. However, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) looked at this and decided that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute relatives in such cases. I strongly agree with the CPS because I think it would be wholly wrong to take loving relatives to court in these circumstances, but it is no substitute for Parliament considering the law in this area and reaching a view.
It was for all these reasons that I voted in favour of Rob Marris MP’s Bill in 2015 which proposed that a terminally ill adult who is of sound mind should have the choice, with strong safeguards and the alternative of good palliative care, to self-administer medicine to end their own life. The Bill would only have covered someone aged 18 or over who was “terminally ill”; ie whose life expectancy was less than 6 months (it would not apply to people with disabilities or people who are depressed or who suffer from dementia). The person would have to be of sound mind and voluntarily (ie with no coercion) sign a declaration that they wish to end their own life. Two doctors and a High Court judge would then have to be satisfied about the requesting patient’s eligibility, and that he or she had made a fully informed decision, before assisted dying would be allowed. Then, after a 14 day waiting period, a doctor would give the medicine to the patient who would have to take it themselves; no-one else – eg the doctor, spouse or other family member – would be allowed to give them the drug. For me, this is really important as there is no question of someone else administering the drug. And there would be no requirement on any doctor to take part; ie religious belief and conscientious objection would be fully protected.
I realise, of course, that describing the process in this way may appear shocking, but if the law is going to permit this then there must be full and proper safeguards. Without them, some of the fears about where this might all lead could come to pass, and I do not want that to happen.
Nearly a decade ago a man called Tony Nicklinson who had been paralysed after a stroke and could only move his head and his eyes went to court to argue that the ban on assisted dying was incompatible with the right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (a useful reminder that the Convention protects the rights of all of us). The court declined to rule in his favour at the time, but Lord Neuberger, the then President of the Supreme Court, said this: “…a system whereby a judge or other independent assessor is satisfied in advance that someone has a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to die and for his suicide then to be organised in an open and professional way, would … provide greater and more satisfactory protection for the weak and vulnerable, than a system which involves a lawyer from the DPP’s [Director of Public Prosecutions’] office inquiring, after the event, whether the person who had killed himself had such a wish, and also to investigate the actions and motives of any assister….”.
Anyway, I found myself in a minority as the Bill was heavily defeated in the House of Commons on a free vote – ie MPs were not told how to vote by their respective political parties because it was seen as a matter of individual conscience. But to judge by opinion polls, this is an issue on which the public is ahead of elected politicians, and were such a bill to return to Parliament for a debate and vote, I would support it again because I remain of the view that those who are facing the prospect of their own imminent death should be able to determine the timing and the manner of it, surrounded by those who love them and whom they love.
First published in the January 2024 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here https://southleedslife.com/mps-notebook-assisted-dying/