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Assisted dying — a right not a request

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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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