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MPs Argue Assisted Dying Law “Perpetuates Inequalities” In Landmark Debate

Campaigners in support of voluntary euthanasia protested outside Parliament ahead of the debate (Alamy)

7 min read

MPs from across the political divide have said the current law on assisted dying “perpetuates inequalities”, with some urging the government to bring forward a change to the law itself rather than leave it to Parliament.

On Monday, MPs attended a landmark general debate in Westminster Hall on the issue of whether there should be a change in the law relating to assisted dying, after an e-petition reached more than 207,000 signatures.

There were too many MPs in attendance for the number of chairs in the room – just one indication that the issue is becoming ever more prominent, and is expected to be a key theme in the next parliament after the upcoming general election. A poll last month, conducted by Opinium on behalf of pro-assisted dying organisation Dignity in Dying, showed 75 per cent of people in the UK were in support of making it legal for a person to seek assisted dying in the UK, compared to 14 per cent opposed.

MPs remain divided over whether assisted dying should be legalised, but both the Conservative government and Labour leader Keir Starmer have said that any change to the law should be led by Parliament through a Private Member’s Bill, on which MPs would be permitted a free vote.

In the debate, many MPs with opposing views spoke about the deaths of their own loved ones and recounted heartbreaking letters and conversations with their constituents – including some who broke down in tears.

Leading the debate, Labour MP and whip Tonia Antoniazzi said: “Whatever our own views, we must recognise that public opinion on assisted dying has shifted in one direction. Polls by Dignity in Dying have shown overwhelming support for law changes with safeguards in place.”

MPs from multiple parties said they held the view that the current law on assisting dying worsened health inequalities as rich people can afford a “good death” by joining assisted dying clinics in countries where the procedure is legal, while poorer people were left to suffer. 

“The fact of the matter is that you can have a good death if you can afford or are physically able to fly to Switzerland,” Labour MP and shadow minister Alex Davies-Jones said.

“That is something that is grossly unfair, and is completely out of reach for the vast majority of my constituents in Pontypridd and the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom. So it's absolutely right that we have that debate because if you can afford it and if you're physically able to do so you can have a good death.”

Conservative MP and former minister Kit Malthouse argued that the status quo was “appalling” and that there was a “business class” system operating around how people die.

“We have hundreds of people taking their own lives in this country, thousands dying agonising, horrible deaths, who may wish to do something different,” he said.

“And of course, we've got business class so it's even worse. If you've got the money you can have what the law denies to everybody else. It's an outrage, and it should change.”

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said that while perpetuating inequalities, not allowing assisted dying was “inadvertently permitting assisted dying already that lacks regulation and oversight” and “drives it behind closed doors”.

“The current law doesn't eradicate demand for assisted dying,” she said. 

“It just drives practices overseas or behind closed doors where there are no safeguards in place to protect people.”

However, several MPs, including Conservative Andrew Selous, referenced the inequalities in healthcare experienced by elderly and vulnerable people that might drive them to seek assisted dying. He spoke of his personal experience caring for mother-in-law towards the end of her life and their struggle to access the pain medications she needed.

“I spent many Saturday mornings driving around North Yorkshire to get to a GP surgery to ask for her morphine prescription to be increased, And that is simply not good enough in this country today,” he said.

“We need to make sure that our elderly and those towards the end of their lives are not bored and are not lacking in stimulation such that they think that they have nothing to live for.”

Labour MPs Rachael Maskell and Stephen Timms, Conservative MPs Danny Kruger and Robin Millar, and DUP MP Carla Lockhart, all expressed similar concerns about how vulnerable people might go down the assisted dying route due to feeling like a “burden” on their families.

Maskell said this “societal failure” must be addressed first before any law change in assisted dying, while Timms argued the NHS should be there to “protect those people” rather than “impose a terrible dilemma on frail people, elderly people and others when they're at their most vulnerable point in their lives”.

Kruger stated that “suicide is contagious” and that examples from other countries showed the numbers of people taking part in assisted dying went up in countries that had already legalised it. 

Lockhart, who has lost members of her own family to terminal illness, said: “I know the one thing these people don't need is the law telling them that their lives aren't worth living or that they're costing too much. 

“We need to tell such people that they are valued or important, we care for them no matter the cost and we must put our money where our mouth is and ensure that all those who need it can access high quality specialised palliative care.” 

Millar added that “we must never get to a point where assisted dying is seen as a prescription”.

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, who stated his support for changing the law on assisted dying, called on the government to put in a Bill itself, rather than leave it for a Private Member’s Bill – a position he said he only formed upon taking part in the debate today.

“It's been expressed today that there perhaps isn't the sense of faith that a private member's bill would do justice to the detail that we've been discussing in detail here,” he said.

“I'm of the mind, and I didn't come here thinking this, it now needs to be done in government time so it can go through the full committee process, so we can do our job… tacking it onto a private member's bill I don't think will be the process that we should be pursuing.”

David Davis, another Conservative MP, echoed this view, arguing that it would require “a multi-day second reading and report stage” to consider the complexities of the topic, compare with other international jurisdictions and ensure the legislation would not become “slippery slope”.

In response, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Safeguarding Laura Farris described the government’s view as “neutral”: “Our view remains that any relaxation of the law is an issue of conscience of individual parliamentarians rather than one for government policy.”

Some MPs raised concerns that polls showing public support for assisted dying should be taken with a pinch of salt when other polls indicate limited understanding around existing provisions for assisted dying and palliative care. A new survey by YouGov, commissioned by King’s College London, found that 65 per cent of people across the UK are worried about access to palliative and end of life care, while 41 per cent think there is too little NHS resource allocated to these services. 

The survey also highlighted an urgent need to improve death literacy and understanding about palliative care among the public, particularly among ethnic minority groups. 22 per cent of people from ethnic minority groups said they had not heard of palliative care, compared to 4 per cent of White people, and 18 per cent of people from ethnic minority groups believed it is accurate that palliative care involved giving people medicines in order to shorten their lives, compared to 5 per cent of White people.

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