The discussion was led by the APPG’s chair, Labour MP Sarah Champion, alongside a distinguished panel, which included Hollywood star Sir Patrick Stewart, former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, Dignity in Dying Chairman Sir Graeme Catto and Labour MP Rob Marris.
In June this year Mr Marris was chosen first in the Private Member’s Bill ballot and decided to put forward legislation on assisted dying, which is due for its second reading on 11 September.
The Wolverhampton MP stated that the proposals were essentially the same as the Bill presented in the last parliament by Lord Falconer, which made significant progress through the Lords and brought much attention to the subject, but eventually ran out of time.
The event began with a panel discussion, which was kicked off by distinguished actor, and Dignity in Dying patron Patrick Stewart, who gave a moving speech describing how the experience of a friend had led him to become more involved in the issue.
He also suggested that under the current rules some terminally ill people were being “unlawfully imprisoned” in a world of constant suffering and worry.
He said: “You are imprisoned by your condition and you are imprisoned by the law, which at the moment will not permit doctor assisted dying, or family assisted dying of any kind. If you are that person you are experiencing torture, the torture of your sickness, the torture of the stress of your loved ones.
“In that way, not having recourse of the law seems to me a contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Following on from this, Lord Carey – who has previously spoken out against assisted dying - explained why he had changed his stance.
“I regret very much that I am out of step with my church and the present Arch Bishop of Canterbury, who I respect very much indeed. Although he doesn’t need reminding that he and the bishops are out of step with the majority of the country…
“Those who argue for the status quo need to be reminded that the train has already left the station. The debate, in other words, has moved on…
“There are no superior moral grounds that the Christian tradition gives to those who oppose this change. I suppose I knew that all along, but I refused to follow the logic. In other words there is nothing in scripture, nothing in the Christian tradition that leads inexorably to this conclusion. Nothing apart from broad principles such as the sanctity of life and compassion for the most vulnerable.”
Expanding on the argument that a change in the law was overwhelmingly supported by the public, former chair of the General Medical Council, Graeme Catto said: “I personally believe that mentally competent, terminally ill adults should have a right to determine the time and the place of their death and 82% of the population agree with me.”
Mr Marris was keen to stress, however, that “just because 80% of the population supports something, does not mean that you should do it, but it is a reason for those of us who are elected representatives to take into account when we make a decision on a matter of conscience.”
He went onto address the concerns of those who oppose a change in the law, setting out the safeguards within the legislation.
“This Bill would allow, after a rigorous process with many safeguards, a terminally ill person of sound mind, who is an adult and resident in the United Kingdom and who has been informed about palliative care and has made a free choice to end their own life. It is not question of anybody else doing it. This Bill is not about euthanasia and it is not about disability.
“People with disabilities… are not terminally ill and even if they wished to do so they could not avail themselves of the provisions of this legislation. Nor could someone with dementia. Dementia is not a terminal illness, it does not come within the Act… On the slippery slope argument, my understanding is the law in Belgium and the law in the Netherlands started out with euthanasia, that’s a completely different scenario than I and other supporters of the Bill are suggesting for the United Kingdom…
“On the coercion argument. Again I understand people’s concerns about that. I think they are misplaced because of the safeguards in the Bill. An individual who wished to use the procedure in this Bill, would have to be signed off by two doctors and a high court judge.
“I have greater faith in my fellow professionals than clearly some critics of the Bill do.”
Concluding proceedings, Ms Champion, called on attendees to support the legislation and inform the debate as the second reading draws near.
“We have about seven weeks and you have heard about some of the obstacles we have in our way, not least getting the MPs into the building so that they will vote…
“All of us in this room, we know the argument and the counter argument and we know the reality but most people outside are just reading the hype. So, all of us have a responsibility to put the reality of this Bill out there.”