Yesterday in parliament MPs debated the issue of assisted suicide and the functioning of the current law.
Nick Boles MP, chair of the All-Party Group for Choice at the End of Life, held the debate in order to reflect what he views as the changed mood on assisted suicide since the last Commons vote in 2015, when MPs overwhelmingly rejected the Assisted Dying Bill (No 2), by 330 votes to 118. He hopes will pave the way for a new bill on assisted suicide before 2022.
Several MPs spoke out against a change in the current legislation, from both sides of the House.
Legalising assisted suicide sends a fundamental message to vulnerable people about the value of their lives.
Liz McInnes MP raised the crucial concern that legalising assisted suicide would lead vulnerable people to feel like a burden:
“My concern then, and my concern now, is that in the current climate, at a time of overstretched NHS budgets and massively underfunded social care, if assisted dying were legalised, it would begin to be seen as an alternative to treatment and care…there is a real risk of a subtle but dangerous culture change in which vulnerable, terminally ill patients come to see assisted dying as a treatment option and the best way to stop themselves becoming a burden to their families, the NHS and wider society.”
This was echoed by Lyn Brown MP, who spoke from her personal experience of the pressure that vulnerable, terminally ill people could face:
“My mum died suddenly, riddled with cancer. I know that had this law been passed at that time, she would have spent her last months consumed by guilt and anxiety about when she should press that button. She would have worried about the pressure on me and my sister, about the cost of her care, and that people would have thought she was consuming resources that she should not consume. Sometimes when we have this debate, we do not consider collectively the pressure we would put on people by giving them that choice.”
Martin Vickers MP also highlighted the anxiety this could add to those at the end of their lives:
“If one is old, frail, weak and seriously ill, one needs help, support and compassion—not the added worry and the nagging doubt over whether everything possible is being done to preserve one’s life.”
The slippery slope of assisted suicide
One of the chief concerns raised was the issue of adequate safeguards. Mr Boles claimed that “in jurisdictions such as Oregon, where for 20 years now there has been a law of the kind that was proposed here, there is no evidence of that slippery slope argument leading to people being put under pressure.”
However, this claim is highly misleading. The law in Oregon only applies to those who have a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months to live. However, whilst the law hasn’t changed on paper, there have clearly been incremental changes in practice, demonstrating there has been an erosion of effective checks and safeguards. For example, in Oregon the law recently changed to enable doctors to waive the 15-day waiting period included in the original legislation to protect vulnerable people who may change their minds.
Furthermore, the categories of medical conditions rendering a person eligible for assisted suicide has widened. Initially only five conditions were considered as falling within the law, whereas deaths have most recently been recorded for conditions such as arthritis, sclerosis, and diabetes. These are not normally considered terminal illnesses. In Washington, 3% of deaths in 2017 were categorised as ‘unknown illnesses’.
Sir Peter Bottomley spoke of the dangers of the slippery slope of liberalising the law on assisted suicide:
“Of course there are difficult cases, but we should not use hard cases to justify a change that can lead—not will lead, but can lead—to a major change. Nobody in the Netherlands said in 2002 they were anticipating 5,000 assisted suicides or euthanasia cases a year. They did not say it. People may say that because Oregon has not changed further, things there will never change, but in Oregon they are having the same debates about euthanasia as we are having about assisted dying.”
CARE speaks out on the issue of assisted suicide.
The current law sends a fundamental message that life is precious, and that our value as people does not depend on our circumstances. Mr Vickers pointed out the crucial point that “any move to legalise assisted dying would be yet another step that lessened the value that we as a society place on human life.”
This is particularly the case for those who are disabled. Several members spoke of the concern of disability groups and their opposition to a change in the law, including Ms McInnes, who said it would lead to "value judgments being made about whether other people’s lives are worth living or not."
She quoted one disability campaigner who said: “Someone taking their own life is seen as a tragedy, except if that person is disabled. Then it is seen as understandable.”
This week has seen mounting pressure from the assisted suicide lobby for a change in the law, following cases such as Geoff and Ann Whaley. CARE’s CEO, Nola Leach, was recently on the Today Programme, sharing her own experiences of the death of her husband Tony, and how she was able to trust doctors with his life because of the safeguards of the current law.
Read more about why the risks of legalising assisted suicide are simply too great.