Denying the right to assisted dying is ‘idiotic’ – Kit Malthouse MP
Legalising assisted dying in the UK is a question of when, not if, said panellists at a Conservative conference fringe event.
“This is the building liberal cause of the future,” declared Lord Finkelstein speaking at a fringe on assisted dying in the UK.
“The support we had last year [for the Assisted Dying Bill] shows how much opinion has shifted on the issue, but in the House of Commons politicians have proven themselves to be behind political opinion.”
“Politicians need to grasp that they are running behind a debate that most ordinary people think is obvious.”
Kit Malthouse MP recalled his initial confidence ahead of the vote and his surprise at the “heavy loss”. The experience was a tough lesson on the “inner workings of parliament”, said the MP.
“MPs are a strange group, and there are several groups who are over represented,” he remarked, namely “people with a strong religious convictions” and doctors – whom he deemed “deeply influential”.
“The medics spoke in one voice touting medical ethics over the rights of the individual.”
Malthouse felt that from early on in the Commons debate, it was perceived that ‘virtue’ was on the side of those who were against assisted dying. He anticipated, however, that this would change in the future.
“In terms of ‘protecting the vulnerable’ we really need to ask who we are speaking about,” said Sarah Wootton, CEO of Dignity in Dying.
A dying person, who can no longer be helped by medical science and is suffering, is the most vulnerable amongst us, she asserted.
“To force them into desperate acts such as traveling abroad is cruel.”
Mr Malthouse said it was essential to change the mentality of ‘doing harm’ as a doctor.
The first thing that became clear after the vote, said Malthouse, “was that MPs had not been exposed to the realities and practice of assisted dying, but more importantly they had not been exposed to those who had suffered a horrible death.”
He said more MPs need to have a first-hand experience of the suffering that can come with a terminal illness. He called for suffering constituents to show up to their MP’s surgeries and show them the painful experience of slow deterioration.
Malthouse lamented that assisted dying was the ‘business class’ option.
“At the moment we do have dignity in dying, but only for the rich. You can buy your way to a dignified death by going overseas.”
At the event, a patron of Dignity and Dying, Peter Squires, shared his 12 month experience of ‘buying’ his mother’s way to a dignified death in Switzerland.
Suffering from the advanced stages of Huntington’s disease, his mother attempted suicide three times. Mr Squires described the fear of taking the decision to going abroad to access assisted dying services, as the threat of arrest hung over the family’s decisions.
“She should have had the ability to die in her own home and country,” he said.
This story was far from uncommon, remarked Ms Wootton, as for every one person who goes to Switzerland there are 10 who are forced to end their life at home – with one person going abroad every fortnight.
Mr Malthouse said another element that came to light during last year’s debate was a confusion in people’s minds about the interchangeability of end of life care and assisted dying. He criticised MPs for thinking that “if they protested the poor end of life care that would get them off the hook from making the difficult decision on assisted dying.”
However, he called for everyone to “campaign hard” to improve end of life care, suggesting that high quality care only brings the suffering of those wishing for an assisted death into high relief.
A part of that campaign must be to end the distress caused by limited information for the dying, said Sarah Wootton. She cautioned that the important process of planning ahead is made difficult by British culture, “where doctor knows best.”
She warned that too often medical staff only inform patients of what they want to do without consulting them on their preferences. Depriving dying people of these conversations is to deny them "a great source of comfort", remarked Wootton.
The feeling of disempowerment is backed up by research, Wootton explained, which has found that at the final stages of life only 25% of people have had a discussion with their doctor about their imminent death and only 32% of patients have the opportunity to have their concerns listened to.
“The change to the law would be a huge change to end of life care. It would reverse any paternalism that is inherent, putting power back in the hands of the patient. They get to ask what their medical prognosis is, to choose what kind of treatment they want, to choose how they are going to die. And it would give people comfort – huge comfort – that they are not going to suffer.”
She emphasised that support for assisted dying is increasing all the time. Several international initiatives have recently come to fruition, such as in Canada and a strong movement towards with pending legislation in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.”
“It is clear that assisted dying will be legalised in the UK, the question is when.”
Kit Malthouse MP cautioned that the UK will have to wait a long way for another vote, but said there are ways to force it on the agenda.
Malthouse called for the ‘intellectual human rights argument’ to be made, saying, “if, when, Liz Truss shows up with a new Bill of Rights, then there is an opportunity to enshrine [assisted dying] in that legislation, defining what the ‘right to life’ is.”
“Like most laws that contravene essential human rights, it’s idiotic, and 82% of the population find it idiotic, same as denying the vote to women was idiotic… these laws that contravene things that we intrinsically know are human rights, but for which we deny for intellectual constructs – medical or religious – they always fall in the end.”