Assisted Dying – Private Member’s Bill

Mark hopes to make the following contribution to today’s debate on assisted dying. He has registered to speak but so have around eighty other MPs so he may not be able to get through his entire speech. He will be voting against a change in the law.


11 September 2015

Inevitably an MP’s direct personal experience has a strong bearing on his or her views on ethical and moral issues, which are rightly subject generally to a free vote in parliament. My own father’s terminal cancer and death twenty-five years ago, for example, played a fundamental role in formulating my own views on pain relief in the latter stages of life.

As his next of kin, I played a quiet role in working with our long-standing family doctor to ensure my father had enough morphine to ward off pain as his illness advanced. That decision may well have shortened his life by a few days, perhaps even weeks. I did not consider this to be wrong. We relied upon a common sense understanding, which no amount of legal safeguards would have resulted in a more just, practical outcome. This experience reinforced my instinctive reluctance to see the superficially desirable extension of freedom of action in this area to be enshrined into law.

Many of us will have received a huge amount of correspondence this week from constituents with passionately-held views on both sides of this debate. I shared with many of them the details of my father’s experience and received in response a powerful email from a constituent who had similarly cared for his mother, but who unfortunately had a very different experience of palliative care.

After an 18 month battle with cancer my constituent’s mother was told that her condition was terminal and near to the end, her suffering and indignity became unbearable. She was unable to drink or eat, effectively being dehydrated to death with as much pain relief as possible, and was no longer able to speak beyond croaked words. Nonetheless, she was still able to express her wish to die – a wish my constituent would have dearly liked to have granted to end her pain. Speaking to friends who had also lost parents to cancer, my constituent’s understanding was that the threat of prosecution and litigation has now created a situation whereby the humane treatment that my father received is no longer an option. I wanted to raise this because I appreciate that in many ways, I was lucky that my father’s doctor was willing to take a common sense approach. It is to be deeply regretted that the litigious society we have created has led to an extreme aversion to risk.

I appreciate too that there are in many ways trickier ethical dilemma arising in the cases of those with incapacitating conditions that fall short of terminal illness. One such instance applied to Andrew, an old university friend, who lapsed into a diabetic coma in 1996, spending the next thirteen years requiring twenty-four hour care. In Andrew’s case it was impossible to assess the quality of his life in any meaningful way. I genuinely feel he took pleasure from aspects of his life and the dedication of his parents and carers brought huge rewards for all in contact with him. Beyond his nearest loved ones who should have had any right to judge objectively the worth of his existence?

The issue leaves legislators with a grim quandary and it is left for us individually to make the call on how best to balance the passionately held views of those on both sides of the debate. I suspect the automatic reaction of many in the face of the deeply moving cases would be to legalise assisted dying. Surely, the argument goes, there is room for compassion in the legal system, provided appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent abuse?

Similar arguments were put forward in the debate which preceded the Abortion Act 1967. Abortion would be reserved for the most desperate and vulnerable. Yet since that law came into place, we now see advertisements inviting women to ‘Walk In. Walk Out’ for lunchtime terminations. I am by no means anti-abortion or indeed lamenting the introduction of that Act. An abortion remains a deeply difficult personal decision that can cause lasting emotional trauma. But Lord Steel, the architect of that Act, has himself admitted that he never anticipated ‘anything like’ the current number of terminations and said that ‘parliament never intended the law to be used in that way’.

Do we want to be making those kinds of statements a few decades on from an Assisted Dying Act? Difficult cases make bad law and it should be the first duty of the state to protect the lives of its citizens, not leave them vulnerable to the manipulation of legislation. The reality is that nobody has been imprisoned since the Suicide Act 1961 and in that sense, the current system can work provided we apply a common sense approach.

We must accept too that there can never be sufficient safeguards once the state legalises one type of death at the hands of another. There can never be a safeguard, for instance, which prevents a vulnerable and confused person from feeling they have a duty to ask a doctor or two in private to end their life prematurely. Nor can you prevent a selfless person from seeing a law permitting euthanasia as an opportunity to cease being a burden – even when they have no wish to die themselves. The current law gives vulnerable people the permission not even to consider whether they should seek a premature death – and in doing so relieves them of a significant burden when they may face enough struggles in dealing with the illness or disability itself.

A legal and societal acceptance of assisted dying not only carries the risk of the right to die developing into a duty to die. It makes way for the inadvertent sanitisation of death. The reality is that much of this debate is happening in the context of tremendous funding problems in not only the NHS, but care for the elderly. If we try to introduce legal suicide, we risk creating a charter for those who think there are elderly, disabled and other people whose lives have less value than those of the rest of us. That is a very dangerous way forward.

It may seem odd that as a former lawyer and now a legislator I profoundly believe that the law’s empire should not be extended into this highly contentious sphere. Instead we should let common sense prevail. Close friends and relatives know instinctively the wishes of their nearest and dearest. They should be protected by compassionate understanding rather than illusory legal safeguards.