It's time to speak up on assisted dying
The suffering of people with incurable medical conditions can be as severe as those with terminal illnesses. So why should their end of life choices not be the same?
Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill has its second reading on 22nd October. If passed, it will allow doctors to prescribe medication for patients with fewer than six months to live to have the option of an assisted death. The Bill represents an important and welcome milestone for the choices of some of those who are terminally ill. Yet it would exclude both the terminally ill with a greater life expectancy than six months, as well as those suffering intolerably with incurable conditions.
Popular and medical opinion has drastically moved on since Parliament last voted on a Bill in 2015. In 2019, a poll conducted by NatCen found that up to 88 per cent of the public now believe a choice should be given to those with either terminal or incurable conditions. What is more, last year one of the largest ever surveys of medical opinion found that 59% of doctors personally support a change in the law for people with non-fatal but intolerable conditions, while less than half that number support a law limited to the terminally ill alone.
There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of countries adopting, or soon to adopt, an assisted dying law – and many are of broader scope than the six month life expectancy model proposed by Baroness Meacher (her Bill has its origins in the law passed in Oregon as long ago as 1998) These include Austria, Canada, Germany and Spain, where there is or will be a choice both for dying people and those who face endless years of suffering. They are in addition to Switzerland and the Benelux countries, which have had such broader laws for many years.
If we are serious about alleviating the suffering of people facing unbearable pain, then it’s time for decision-makers to speak up
If the Assisted Dying Bill were to become law in its current form, one person it wouldn’t have helped is the determined assisted dying campaigner, Paul Lamb, who died in June. Paul had been left paralysed from the neck down following a car accident and experienced agonising pain on an almost constant basis, despite medication. But he was not terminally ill. The suffering of people like Paul, with incurable medical conditions, is no less severe than those with terminal illnesses.
Baroness Meacher is right that the UK has shamefully fallen behind the rest of the world on the all-important question of assisted dying, and that our outdated laws are in urgent need of reform. But our lawmakers should not be fighting the same debates of more than half a decade ago; instead they should catch up with the clamouring for change that there is today.
If we are serious about alleviating the suffering of people facing unbearable pain, and enshrining a right to dignity, respect, and compassion in our law, then it’s time for decision-makers to speak up for the incurably suffering when debating these proposals on assisted dying. They can do so in the knowledge that they have huge public support.
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