Assisted dying — a right not a request

There’s no excuse, now is the time to fight for legislative reform

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As we await the scheduling of the second reading of Lord Falconer’s resubmitted Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords, now seems to be a good time to take a moment to reflect on this thorny legal issue.

In its last outing in 2014-15, the bill survived two wrecking amendments in the House of Lords with a 2:1 majority, and was in the process of being debated at the Committee stage before parliament prorogued.

But with the vast majority of the public now actually supporting some form of legislative reform in this area, and with a Canadian Supreme Court ruling supporting citizens’ right to control their own deaths, we have every reason to be optimistic change is coming — or do we?

Some of you may have recently watched a BBC2 documentary entitled How to Die: Simon’s Choice. This followed 57 year-old Simon Binner who, in January 2015, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Simon stated that he knew on the drive home what he would do when the time came — that he would die on his terms. Simon’s MND developed rapidly and just nine months after being diagnosed he had an assisted death in Switzerland surrounded by loved ones.

One of the key themes of the documentary was the recent parliamentary debates on assisted dying, which came about as a result of a Private Members’ Bill from Rob Marris MP. The bill was essentially the same as Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill and it was hoped that, come September 2015, MPs would debate the issue with the same degree of open-mindedness and respect that the lords had in the previous parliament. The bill did not make it beyond its second reading.


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The debate, in my opinion, was disgraceful. It showed that, overwhelmingly, MPs vote based on their own moral stance on this issue without any consideration of the views of their constituents or the wider public in general. This was in stark contrast to the House of Lords, who were willing to progress Lord Falconer’s bill despite personal conflictions regarding the subject matter. Lord Harries of Pentregarth illustrated this when he said:

[T]here is clearly a general desire that this issue should be debated; I shall not, therefore, oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. However, I am filled with a deep disquiet about it.

It was even more disappointing that the most qualified MP in the chamber to speak on this subject — ex-Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Keir Starmer, who had issued the current guidelines on this matter — was seemingly completely ignored by all those who had already made up their minds before the debate had even started.

The one shining light in this debate for me, aside from Starmer, was Sarah Champion MP. She said:

There is the argument that it is God’s will that we should suffer… and that it is God’s choice how we end our lives. I have 100% respect for that view. If that is someone’s position… this Bill is not for them and I do not expect them to seek to make use of its provisions. I feel, however, that I should be able to make a different choice and that others should not be able to stop me.

She continued:

I feel strongly that this Chamber does not have moral superiority over those who we serve and have elected us… I find it patronising that we think that our opinion should carry more weight than that of the general population.

I find it completely reprehensible that people like MND sufferer Simon Binner have to go to such extremes as flying themselves — and any loved ones that they can afford — to mainland Europe in order to ensure they can have a dignified death, especially when the public in the UK overwhelmingly support a change in the legislation. I find it even more disturbing that people — like Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from Locked-in-Syndrome (LIS) following an unexpected stroke — are forced to starve themselves to death for lack of other options. These are not “worst case scenarios”. These are real life cases that have happened and are continuing to happen.

In 1996, aged just 45, my dad had a major stroke at our home. He never recovered. This year, unexpectedly, my mum was diagnosed with cancer. Once again, just like that, life changed. Days were filled with blood tests, chemotherapy appointments and helping her take medication at home via stomach injections. Thankfully, at this stage, the treatment seems to be progressing well, but the situation has once again brought home to me that life is unpredictable. We are not promised tomorrow and we are certainly not promised our health and that is why I am so passionate about this topic.

This fight is our fight, all of ours, because tomorrow you may be the person diagnosed with MND like Simon Binner, or you may fall unexpectedly ill like Tony Nicklinson and be left suffering from LIS. Nobody expects to be diagnosed with cancer, but we know that, if this does happen, there are options available to us most of the time. With diseases such as MND and LIS, there are no options. I can say with absolute certainty that if I am ever in a position where I am diagnosed with MND I will make plans to end my life on my terms whilst I am still able — this could mean I die weeks, months or even years before the disease would render me completely immobile. However, the alternative to this is far worse.

I personally hope that when this topic comes around in the House of Commons again, our MPs will act in a wholly more decent, respectful way and actually represent the views of the public for whom they serve.

Of course, nothing in life is perfect, including legislation, but we must be willing to allow a prolonged debate to take place if we ever hope to answer the legitimate concerns people have with this topic. Whether you support legislation in some capacity or not, I think we can all agree that allowing people to suffer out of fear of making a decision has gone on for too long and we must act now. To quote one of the greatest minds and most notable MND suffers Stephen Hawking, “we don’t let animals suffer, so why humans?”

Alex Bedford is a final year law student at the University of Law.

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16 Comments

Just Anonymous

There is a very respectable argument against legalising assisted dying: that the risk of abuse is too great and, (just as, in criminal law, it is better that the guilty walk free than that the innocent get convicted) it is better that people live against their will than that they die against their will.

I don’t agree with that argument, but I respect it. And I don’t challenge the good faith of those who advocate it.

What I cannot respect is the argument that suicide violates God’s will. Put simply, in 2016, the opinions of other peoples’ unproven imaginary friend should no longer have any relevance in our law.

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Anonymous

… It was going so well.

You do not appear to have drawn a distinction between respecting the beliefs held by others and respecting that others should be entitled to have their own beliefs.

Seems quit significant when discussing an issue which centres around the extent to which individuals can exercise personal choice.

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Just Anonymous

Rubbish.

Of course people are entitled to believe that suicide is wrong. (For religious reasons or otherwise.)

However, respecting their right to hold that belief doesn’t imply that the religious get to force it on the rest of us merely on the basis of their imaginary friend’s opinion.

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Just Anonymous

Ah, I see.

Well I maintain that ‘imaginary friend’ is a perfectly appropriate title for someone whose opinions everyone seems to know, but who never turns up to articulate them himself.

If God actually decides to turn up and give evidence himself before a Commons Select Committee, then I will happily amend the title accordingly!

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Anonymous

This calls to mind that fine Rowan Atkinson stand-up sketch where he plays the devil welcoming groups of the dead to Hell…

“Atheists…? Atheists…? Just over there please… You must be feeling a right bunch of nitwits!”

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Anonymous

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, unlike many other European jurisdictions this IS still officially a Christian country and our legal system and traditions DO acknowledge the existence of God, whether you like it or not. Of course we (rightly) have freedom of religion and belief (or lack thereof) but the state does take an official view, and that view is Christian.

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Alex Bedford

Appreciate the comment calling me a “fat cunt” – if you develop the intelligence to debate with me properly, send me a message.

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Anonymous

I thought this article was well written and I agree with most of it. On the subject of ‘God’…I am not a religious person anymore. Too many bad things have happened and it’s left me thinking how can there be a God – why would he do all this to one person? So, in my humble opinion, he has got nothing to do with this debate – it’s between the people who would like to see this antiquated law changed (ME!) and those that don’t. And if I, or any of my loved ones, get diagnosed, with any of these horrendous illnesses like cancer, MED, Dementia etc etc., then I will do whatever it takes and whatever we decide to do, to leave this world! If it means me getting arrested and sent to prison for helping a loved one, being free from pain and suffering and carrying out their last wish, then so be it.

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Anonymous

“Whether you support legislation in some capacity or not, I think we can all agree that allowing people to suffer out of fear of making a decision has gone on for too long and we must act now. ” I can’t follow this sentence. It appears to be saying that whether you support legislation or not, you must support legislation. Or what other action is there? We had the debate assisted suicide supporters were calling for and the bill was overwhelmingly rejected, but now, oh, it wasn’t a /prolonged/ debate.

Tony Nicklinson was not terminally ill and would not have been eligible under the Falconer or Marris bills. The fact that so many people supporting them bring him up as an example demonstrates the truth of opponents’ belief that these bills are intended merely as the start of an incrementalist policy of expansion to AS to a much wider number of people. There can be none of the pretence that it’s somehow not suicide when the person’s already dying that’s claimed for AS for terminally ill people: to help disabled people kill themselves because they are disabled is straightforward discrimination of the most serious kind.

There is no clearer sign of shallow thinking on the matter than the “We don’t let animals suffer” argument. First off, we do, we torture them in the most appalling ways in order to eat them, for a start. When people say animals, in context they mean pets. But even pets aren’t treated so wonderfully as people like to imagine: they are put down for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with suffering, from the expense of treating them to the nuisance of them wetting the carpet to just plain no-one wanting them any more. The reason they receive euthanasia so routinely is not that they are treated more kindly than us, but that their lives are less valued than human lives. To be honest, the more I hear this line of argument from people, the more I’m disturbed by how casual and easy it is to end an animal’s life, the very opposite of seeing it as something to aspire to for humans. And then, there always the “we don’t let” bit. None of the this vaunted choice and autonomy for animals. If what we do to animals is the kindest thing and we ought to do it to humans, what about the humans who, like animals, can’t voice an opinion? It’s just extraordinary that people keep bringing up this ill-thought-through trope that supports every worst aspect of euthanasia they disown while claiming they’re the rational ones. It’s nothing but knee-jerk sentimentality designed to get you nodding along without stopping for critical thought.

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Zena Deayton

Good article Alex. I am a supporter of the concept of people being allowed, and indeed assisted, to die when when they feel their pain, suffering, infirmity, disability has reached the stage when they no longer want to live. Often the argument is put forward that such people, because of their vulnerability, could feel pressured into taking this action by unscrupulous relatives and carers . Of course this is a potential issue, but it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to construct both legislation and safeguards to guard against this happening in what I consider would be a limited number of situations. Afterall, we have developed laws to cover so many difficult areas of life, and this is simply, albeit sensitive and controversial, just one more. Furthermore, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch – legislation such as the Mental Capacity Act already gives us a platform on which to build.
It is often said that if legislation was passed to allow assisted dying it would be wrong for people to request such a death on the basis that they feel themselves to be a burden on their carers and society in general. However, without wishing to be insensitive, why is this regarded as a ” wrong or inappropriate” motivation? Many of us who feel this way fear becoming dependant and do not want to be a burden upon others whether they are willing to care for us or not.
Please let’s keep debating this. Legislation has to come soon. As we have heard so often recently “it’s the will of the people” – so why not on this subject?

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