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Sir Vince Cable MP: The current laws around assisted dying are plainly inhumane and unjust

3 min read

"It is time Parliament acted to empower individuals, ensuring that nobody with a rational desire to end their suffering is forced to suffer" says Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable.

It is time we changed the law on assisted dying. Roughly 300 people a year with terminal illnesses are killing themselves, often without medical support and in very agonising circumstances. A further 50 a year are going through the great pain and expense of travelling while ill to Dignitas. It is not right that under the current system people are criminalised for the simple wish to die with autonomy and dignity. Our legislation needs updating with compassion and proper safeguards. 

It is only very recently I have come around to this view of calling for legislation that enables assisted dying. I used to be vehemently opposed. Throughout my last 20 years as an MP, I felt unable to support cases brought to me by constituents arguing in favour (although I would express my sympathy).

My former views were partly shaped by personal experience. My mother, in the remaining few months of her life, lived in a state of confusion and worry that she was a burden. One week she would be pleading to die. Another week she would be enjoying the simple pleasures of life, such as taking a stroll in the park. I was concerned that the vulnerable, like my mother, could be pressured into ending their life against their wishes to avoid being a burden. 

But I realised, from listening to the cases of others, that my own experiences do not reflect everyone’s. Geoffrey Whaley, who prompted a recent Westminster Hall debate on assisted dying, is one such case that challenged my previous perceptions.

Geoffrey Whaley was suffering from terminal Motor Neurone Disease and planned to travel to Switzerland to die at Dignitas. He and his wife, Anne Whaley, had made the preparations to go when an anonymous tip-off to the police meant an investigation was launched. Geoffrey was determined to go, and did, but his remaining weeks of living were marred by the possibility his wife may be given a 14 year sentence for helping him.

It is situations like this where the law needs more compassion. The law prevents those, like Geoffrey Whaley, who have an incurable, awful and painful disease from being able to take a voluntary, rational and considered decision to control their own death. Furthermore, the family, like Anne Whaley, can be criminalised for acting out of respect and love in supporting their partner’s final wishes. This is plainly inhumane and unjust.

The ‘right to die’ need not mean making anyone feel they have ‘duty to die’, providing proper safeguards are in place. It is possible to strike a balance between regulations that prevent the vulnerable being pressured into assisted dying whilst helping those who are suffering unbearable physical pain take back the autonomy they deserve. Such measures can include only offering assisted dying to those who are medically certified as having a terminal illness, verified as being mentally capable, and where a judge and two doctors are satisfied that the request is voluntary. 

How we ensure the right safeguards are in place of course warrants further debate. It is time Parliament acted to empower individuals, ensuring that nobody with a rational desire to end their suffering is forced to suffer and no one who desires to live is pressured to die. 

Sir Vince Cable is the leader of the Liberal Democrats & MP for Twickenham

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