It's time to re-think our outdated, unpopular and uncompassionate assisted dying laws
Our laws are failing dying people, their families and those who must enforce it, we must do better, says Karin Smyth MP.
Few meetings in Parliament have moved me or my colleagues so much as the one we had with Geoffrey and Ann Whaley earlier this year. The Whaleys came to meet MPs, only a week before Geoffrey was due to die, to tell us about their dreadful experience of our outdated, unpopular and uncompassionate assisted dying laws.
Geoffrey, who lived with motor neurone disease, had decided to die at Dignitas in Switzerland. He wanted to choose the manner and timing of his death, before he lost his ability to speak, to swallow or to breathe unaided.
His plans were derailed after an anonymous tip-off to local social services and police, who investigated Geoffrey and Ann. This law-abiding couple, married for more than fifty
years, were treated as criminals simply because Geoffrey wished to choose how and when he died, while his loving wife wanted to help him achieve that aim.
They were understandably terrified. Not just for the threat of prosecution, but more worryingly because they feared the police involvement would stop Geoff from travelling to Switzerland or stop Ann from accompanying him.
Quite aside from the stress this put them under, their story alarmed me because of the pressure it put on police and the social services. Our already-stretched public services were being forced to investigate them due to a law that is not fit for purpose.
We now have comprehensive prosecution guidelines that effectively mean those people like Ann should not be prosecuted if they help purely out of compassionate motives. But the problem is that the law remains in force, so the police are required to investigate every case they are made aware of, even where it is clear there is no suggestion of abuse. They must intrude on a family in the last days and weeks before the loss of their loved ones, putting huge emotional strain not just on the families but on the officers themselves.
If this law is designed to protect people, it is clear that it’s not just missing that aim, it is doing so with devastating side effects for all involved. There must be a better way to protect people, and it is to our great shame that we have not yet found it.
Geoffrey and Ann’s story has prompted today’s debate in Parliament, but it’s not the only case of its kind. Families like the Whaleys are going through similar struggles every week, with one Briton dying in Switzerland every eight days.
For those who don’t manage to make that trip – due to the cost, the legal and administrative hurdles, or because they become too unwell to travel – they face the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will have a pain-free, comfortable and dignified death.
The vast majority of people in this country who are dying of a terminal illness can expect to have a comfortable, dignified, pain-free death with the help of our fantastic NHS and the hospices across the country, who do phenomenal work. The palliative care our health services provide is second-to-none across the world. Even so, there will be a small but significant number of people beyond the capabilities of the very best palliative care, whose condition cannot be alleviated and whose symptoms cannot be controlled.
We must do better. Our laws are failing dying people, their families and those who must enforce it. It is time to look at the undue suffering the blanket ban on assisted dying is causing to people at the end of life. Compassion is not a crime.
Karin Smyth is Labour MP for Bristol South.