Parliamentary debate on the UK Assisted Suicide Law

On 4th July 2019 the House of Commons had the first opportunity to debate assisted dying since the Marris Bill failed in September 2015. The debate can be seen in full here. Prior to the debate MDMD circulated this briefing to MPs.

Nick Boles MP opened the debate by contrasting the death of his father, who ended his life by exercising his right to refuse life sustaining treatment, with that of Geoff Whaley who needed the currently illegal assistance of others for the good death he wanted. Nick Boles explained that “the purpose of today’s debate is not to propose a new law on Assisted Dying, but to understand the effect of the current law… It is only when we have fully understood all the different ways in which the current law impacts the British people that we should consider returning to the question… of what kind of change in the law might be justified.” He then called on the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice to initiate a formal call for evidence on the impact of our existing laws on Assisted Dying. He cited the very limited ability of parliament to gather evidence as a primary reason for this request.

The debate considered many points of view. Several MPs gave moving speeches describing very bad deaths that would have been vastly better had a compassionate Assisted Dying law been in force.  Paul Blomfield MP movingly described his father’s premature unassisted suicide.  “The current law forced my father into a lonely decision and a lonely death.” Although both he and his father strongly support improved end of life care and the hospice movement, he pointed out that “no hospice can enable everybody to die with the dignity that they would want”.  It was soon after a palliative care consultation that his father took the decision to end his life while he still could, without implicating anyone else. “If the law had make it possible he could have shared his plans with us. Knowing that he could, with support, go at the time of his choosing, would have enabled him to stay longer.”

Sir Norman Lamb MP gave further moving examples from his constituents which demonstrate ways in which the current law is failing. One case was a woman’s failed suicide which put her daughter in an impossibly difficult position as her Lasting Power of Attorney. He ended: “it is the individual and not the state who should decide, in a period of terminal illness, whether they bring their life to an end, and that is why the law should change.”

Crispin Blunt MP made the important observation that “The hard truth is that more of us are going to have to grapple with the pain and indignity of crippling progressive infirmities in later life and if we don’t change the law, even more people than the current 1 every 8 days may travel to Switzerland for an assisted death.”

Other MPs highlighted the unfairness of the current law, as the option of a medically assisted death in Switzerland is only available to those who can afford the cost; who are capable of handling the bureaucratic obstacles and who are capable of traveling to Switzerland, often earlier than they would wish.

Steve McCabe MP made a speech in which he referred to the Assisted Dying Coalition and the MDMD poll results. Although he voted against the Marris Bill, he believes the issue needs to be considered by parliament again. He expressed his concerns over a 6-month life expectancy restriction citing the difficulties doctors have in predicting this, and the suffering people it unfairly excludes. He explained that he was very moved by the case of Paul Lamb, saying “I think we need to focus on the quality of life, the capacity for life, and the rational sound judgement of a person who makes such a decision. Life expectancy in itself doesn’t tell us anything about suffering. So I think we should be considering Assisted Dying both in the context of terminal illness but also suffering and a lack of meaningful life.”

Those MPs opposed to changing the law referred to the traditional concerns: the protection of vulnerable people; the need for better palliative care; the views of disability groups; and religious sanctity of life.

Early on in the debate Lyn Brown MP intervened in Nick Boles’ opening speech to describe her mother’s death. She feared that if Assisted Dying had been available her mother would have spent her final months consumed by guilt and anxiety about when she should choose that option because she would have worried about the effect on her close family, the cost of her care, and the NHS resources she was taking up. Nick Boles responded to this by saying that any law would have multiple checks that the requestor was not pressurised by others to make their request. He described the checks that Dignitas make that ensure people are making their choice themselves.

This aspect of the debate is a clear example of the need for a careful gathering and assessment of evidence in the way Nick Boles requested. The concerns of vulnerability and coercion are very important. MDMD hopes that evidence gathering will address:

  • Evidence of the extent of coercion in other jurisdictions regarding requests for medically assisted deaths.
  • Any evidence of coercion in the working of the current law which allows people to refuse life-sustaining treatment to end their lives. (For example, Nick Bole’s father or the case of the “champagne suicide“.) Such people are just as open to coercion to end their life as others who would be eligible for assisted dying under an appropriate law. How do we  currently manage the risk of them being “consumed by guilt and anxiety” over whether or when to choose to refuse treatment as a means of ending their life? Is there any evidence to suggest that the same approach would be inadequate were Assisted Dying legalised?
  • Evidence of how reliably sufficient mental capacity is assessed in legislations which permit various forms of assisted dying, to ensure that anyone requesting an assisted death is making their own safe decision, free from undue persuasion, on a matter as serious as choosing to take their own life.

Some MPs referred to the opposition to Assisted Dying of most religious organisations, saying how they were in favour of Assisted Dying despite their own religious belief. Noel Conway‘s MP Daniel Kawczynski, a Roman Catholic, summed these views up when he said “Perhaps the Church doesn’t always get everything right when it comes to how human beings behave, interact, and ultimately decide to die.”

A number of MPs, including Vince Cable, stated that they had changed their mind on the issue since the Marris Bill debate. In closing the debate Nick Boles said: “I have changed my mind about this issue. Many people have changed their minds about this issue. I hope that more people will change their mind about this issue so that we can get on and change the law and make this country a more humane place for people to live and die.” These are sentiments that MDMD wholeheartedly endorse, but there is still a very long way to go.