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Matt Hancock hears concerns assisted suicide will put vulnerable and disabled at risk

Assisted Suicide
17 June 2021

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has heard concerns that changing the law to permit assisted suicide will fail vulnerable patients and undermine attempts to provide better palliative care.

During a parliamentary event last night organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Dying Well, Professor Katherine Sleeman, an expert in palliative medicine at Kings College London, and disabled Peer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, argued against ‘assisted dying’ legislation.

The event included a short debate on the issue and was attended by 50 MPs, 20 Peers and members of the public. Event host and Chair of the APPG Danny Kruger opened proceedings by stating his own position on the matter. He said:

“We do have a right to die on your own terms already in this country, but not a right to get lethal drugs on the NHS”.

“If we introduce assisted suicide this will increasingly become the expected option for those who think they are facing a difficult death”.

Mr Kruger added that public polling on the issue of assisted suicide demonstrates that: “The more people understand assisted suicide, the more they oppose a change in the law”.

Professor Katherine Sleeman

Dr Katherine Sleeman, Professor of Palliative Care at King’s College London, argued against changing the law. She told the APPG: “The risk of harm of changing the law outweighs the risk of harm if we leave the law as it is”. Prof Sleeman said:

“This law will not just affect the small number of individuals who might choose to go to Dignitas. It will affect every person living with a terminal illness who will suddenly be faced with a new option. For these people, what additional pressures will a change in the law put on them? Legalisation would change the behaviour of people who otherwise would never have considered it.”

“Both sides of this debate, agree, that dying should be dignified. So how can we improve dignity associated with dying? Well, as an academic, my strategy is to look to the scientific literature which provides both some clarity and some concern. What is clear is that often it's the services people receive before death that are associated with dignity.

“Here's the concern. About 600,000 people die each year in the UK and it's estimated that three-quarters of them would benefit from palliative care. Now, it is difficult to be sure exactly how many of these people receive palliative care. Because, frankly, we need much better data. Hospice, UK have estimated that every year in the UK over a hundred thousand people die needing palliative care but not receiving it. And more of a concern is that this gap is getting bigger because needs are projected to increase by around 40 percent over the next 20 years. And that will almost certainly increase known inequalities in access to care, for example, by ethnicity by deprivation."

She added:

“Can we really consider legalization of assisted dying, this seismic shift for all of society, when so many people are dying without the care they require, without even the information that they need? I do not necessarily think assisted dying is morally wrong, but I am deeply concerned that our societal conversation is being driven by hyperbole and fear not by evidence and information and it's wrong and dangerous to frame this as a choice between suffering and suicide.”

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson

Former Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson argued that society must consider “the impact that a potential change in the law will have on disabled people”.

Arguing that a lack of appropriate safeguards exist in the assisted suicide bill before parliament at present, she said: “Frailty and illness and especially illness and disability are often wrongly used interchangeably. Some would say the six months prognosis that is included in the bill would exclude disabled people. But there are many disabled people for whom it could be reasonably argued they have six months left to live.” T

The Baroness added:

“Most people don’t realize the daily grind that disabled people face, and I recognize I have a degree of privilege in my life, but I've lost track of the number of people who have asked me, have I thought about ending my life because they assume that my life is so terrible and tragic…People say to me that they couldn't bear it if they were incontinent. Well, I am. And it is not even vaguely the hardest thing in my life. If you banned catheters that might change how I was able to live. But people's underlying view of disability is inherently negative.”

“I have spent most of my life arguing for choice and inclusion, but we have to recognize that a significant number of disabled people have very, very little choice in their lives and right now, disabled people are spending a lot of the time fighting to live and survive as opposed to asking to die…I would just ask people to think about the impact on disabled people. And the idea that we are somehow in the waiting room for assisted suicide to have us included.”

Matt Hancock

Responding to the statements made by assisted suicide opponents, Mr Hancock stated:

“I think everybody would agree that the current law around this area is complicated, but there are risks to changing it as well as there being problems with the way that the current law is drafted."

He added that: “The government's position is that we don't we don't take a view on a change in the law…because we think that these questions are for Parliament.”

“I think as Health Secretary in a way, I see myself as the parliamentarian whose job it is to make sure that the debate is a, is a high-quality one when it comes.”

CARE comment

Commenting on the debate, James Mildred, Chief Communications Officer at CARE, which opposes a change in the law stated:

“Tonight, the Health Secretary heard serious concerns about what a change in the law to allow assisted suicide would mean for the most vulnerable in society. Evidence from other jurisdictions reveals a terrible situation for lonely and vulnerable patients, people with disabilities and people with mental illness. We hope that he will take these warnings on board. As Professor Sleeman noted in her remarks, the risks posed by a change in the law far outweigh the risks under current provisions. It is vitally important that legislators don’t go down this dangerous path.”


Notes for Editors

For interview requests or more information please contact Jamie Gillies: // 07384467819

CARE is a well-established mainstream Christian charity providing resources and helping to bring Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy and practical caring initiatives. CARE is represented in the UK Parliaments and Assemblies.

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