Baroness Meacher: A majority of the country wants change on ‘broken’ assisted dying law

Posted On: 
16th January 2017

Baroness Meacher writes for PoliticsHome and urges the Government to reconsider assisted dying laws in the face of decades of good practice examples in the United States, and strong support for change in the UK.

Noel Conway will challenge the assisted dying law in the UK courts. In many parts of the United States, laws allowing assisted dying have already been passed.
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In the face of a progressive and terminal illness, Noel Conway has made a courageous choice - he is spending some of his final moments challenging the unpopular, broken law on assisted dying.

Like Noel, I believe that dying people who have mental capacity, should be entitled to choose the manner and timing of their death. He and I both think it's unfair the law denies people the option of controlling their final days and weeks of life.

Denying the right to assisted dying is ‘idiotic’ – Kit Malthouse MP

We’re not alone. Every poll undertaken in recent years shows the vast majority of British people are on our side. No survey has ever reported a majority of Britons opposed to assisted dying, a fact acknowledged by the Ministry of Justice.

There has been muted opposition to Noel’s case, much of it focused around the concerns of people living with disability. The argument goes that some disabled people may be coerced to end their lives if assisted dying laws were introduced. Whilst this is a horrifying prospect, the claim has no basis in reality – not one place where assisted dying is lawful has shown any evidence that disabled people are being pressured by the law. On the contrary, transparent decision-making at the end of life makes it safer.  “Nothing about me, without me” applies as much to the end of life as any other time.  That’s why 86% of disabled people in Britain favour a change in the law to allow assisted dying for terminally ill people.

Fears of abuse are proven to be unfounded when you look at what’s happening across the world. This year will see the 20th anniversary of Oregon’s introduction of an assisted dying law. In those two decades, there has been no evidence of abuse. Moreover, Oregon is among the top performing states in the USA both for quality of hospice care, and for rates of hospice use. The hospice movement there, once opposed, accepts that their initial fears have not come true.

Two decades of good practice has led Oregon to be joined by Washington, Montana, Vermont and California, all of which now permit assisted dying. They will soon be joined by Colorado, where 65% of the electorate voted in support in a referendum in November. Well over 50 million Americans now live in states where assisted dying is permitted.

Canada, a country of 35 million people, also introduced an assisted dying law last year, the first Commonwealth nation to do so. The State of Victoria in Australia is expected to do so later this year.

What makes the British people different? A Canadian with a terminal illness can rest assured that, if their situation becomes unbearable, they can decide to control their death with medical assistance. In this country, the choices are stark: Dying Britons must choose to travel overseas to die, to ask for help in contravention of the law, or to go on suffering.

Noel Conway has chosen another option: to fight, to campaign, to give us the rights that we deserve and that millions more people across the globe are gaining every year. The government must listen to Noel and the overwhelming majority of those who support him, because we all deserve the right to a dignified death.

Baroness Meacher is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.