If we’re serious about protecting vulnerable people, we need a new assisted dying law
The purpose of my Assisted Dying Bill, which will be debated at Second Reading tomorrow, is to give dying adults a safeguarded choice to control the timing and manner of their imminent death.
The Bill was drafted to address the failings of the current law which clearly denies dying people choice, but also seriously fails to offer protection. Some colleagues have expressed concern about the risks of law change. But if we are serious about protecting people – and I most certainly am – then we have to consider the dangers to people under the current law.
Right now, every year, dozens of British people make the difficult journey to Switzerland for help to die, at great financial cost and often earlier than they would wish in order that they are well enough to make the journey. Thousands of dying people each year attempt to end their lives here in the UK, without medical support, often in extremely distressing circumstances.
The current law which places a blanket ban on all assistance to end life does not prevent these deaths from happening. Most happen in secret, without the authorities ever becoming aware. In other cases, loving family members already grieving spend months under investigation, waiting to be told if they will face prosecution and a prison sentence of up to 14 years, often just for being with someone they loved when they died.
People across society recognise the damage the current law does by denying dying people choice
Contrast this to the proposals in the Bill: assisted dying would only be available to terminally ill, mentally competent adults. Two doctors and a High Court judge would be required to independently assess the eligibility of the person making a request, including exploring their reasoning and motivations. Every request would be scrutinised before someone could access an assisted death - this would offer far greater protection than the current law does.
Experience overseas also shows we can craft safe laws that give dying people choice. Oregon in the USA legalised assisted dying for terminally ill adults over 20 years ago. There has been no extension in the eligibility criteria and the law is not disproportionately used by any group that could be considered vulnerable, such as disabled people or those in lower socio-economic groups. The proven safety of Oregon’s law over two decades explains why 10 other states in the USA, most states in Australia and the whole of New Zealand have legalised assisted dying.
Palliative care has flourished in Oregon and assisted dying laws in Australia have been accompanied by huge investment in palliative care. I strongly support sustained investment in palliative care, but we also have to accept that even if every dying person had access to the best palliative care, a small minority of people would still die in the UK every day with no relief of their symptoms.
Research shows 84 per cent of the general public, 80 per cent of people with a religious faith and 86 per cent of people living with a disability support assisted dying being a choice for terminally ill people. People across society recognise the damage the current law does by denying dying people choice, leaving them facing terrible decisions that no one should have to make.
A woman dying of cancer last year, herself a senior healthcare professional said: “I have had to think through other options just in case I am unable to get to Switzerland. I have worked out where I could end my life. I have thought about getting drugs. I am not suicidal. If I could choose life over my inevitable fate I would, but I can’t.”
Baroness Meacher is a crossbench peer.
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