Baroness Meacher: The laws around medically assisted dying are broken and should be amended

Posted On: 
23rd May 2019

Today, Baroness Meacher will ask an question in the House of Lords on whether the threat of prosecutions under the Suicide Act 1961 is causing suffering to mentally competent, terminally ill people at the end of their lives. She writes about the topic for PoliticsHome.

At present the Suicide Act of 1961 prohibits anyone from assisting another to take their own life, even a dying person who is suffering unbearable and who is mentally competent and whose overwhelming wish is to terminate their life a little early, says Baroness Meacher.
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My oral question on Thursday 23rd May will refer to the extraordinary comment of Lord Sumption in response to a question following his first Reith lecture. 

Lord Sumption, former Supreme Court Judge, suggests that the families of dying people who, due to their unbearable suffering, wish to end their live at Dignitas, should disobey the law. 

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At present the Suicide Act of 1961 prohibits anyone from assisting another to take their own life, even a dying person who is suffering unbearable and who is mentally competent and whose overwhelming wish is to terminate their life a little early.

For most of us death is likely to be tolerable even if unpleasant in a variety of ways. 

But a small number of us will be beyond the reach of even the best palliative care.

One such person was Geoff Whaley, who lived with motor neurone disease, and who we met in Parliament the week before he travelled to Dignitas to have an assisted death. 

Geoff had been told he would die naturally in about six months but that he would lose the last remnants of movement (when we met him he could move only two fingers).  He would also lose the ability to talk so that he would be cut off from his wife, family and friends. 

He would be unable to swallow, to eat or drink and he would not be able to breathe unaided.  For Geoff the prospect of such utter helplessness was absolutely unbearable.

Every eight days someone goes to Switzerland for an assisted death.  The circumstances will differ but the common factor is unbearable suffering and the determination to bring that suffering to an end through a medically assisted death.

But what of the nearest relative or close friend who assists the person to make the journey?  

Geoff's wife, Ann was interviewed under caution by the police for two hours. Under the law and the Prosecution Service guidelines, the police had to ensure that Ann was acting only out of compassion and would not benefit financially from her husband's decision to bring forward his death.  Geoff was interviewed by the police too. The interviews were harrowing. Geoff was terrified that his last wish would be denied - that he would have to face six months of unbearable suffering.  Ann was terrified of a 14 year prison sentence for assisting her husband's suicide.

The extraordinary unfairness is that anyone can lawfully take their own life if they are fit enough to do it.  Many terminally ill people do so, and die much earlier than they need to. Surely we need to extend that right to people who are dying and who are too ill to go shopping, buy the medication and take it.  Lord Sumption’s support for families who break the law in these circumstances is indeed a recognition that the Suicide Act of 1961 is itself broken and should be amended.

On Thursday I will be seeking an assurance from the Minister that the Government will begin that process of reform.

Such a move has the support of 84 per cent of the population.

 

Baroness Meacher is a crossbench member of the House of Lords.