The Assisted Dying Bill will give dying people control at the end of their lives
Each of us has an idea of what we would find unbearable at the end of our life. All I ask is that we can decide for ourselves: is this level of suffering bearable for me?
We all know that we may be one of the unlucky people who suffer unbearably at the very end of our lives. It is not surprising, therefore, that 84% of people in this country want assisted dying to be legalised. Interestingly, even more disabled people – 86% - support the legalisation of assisted dying, as do 79% of people of faith. Assisted dying is therefore enormously popular amongst MPs’ constituents – and indeed the Bishops’ congregations.
Terminally ill people in other countries – whether in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada or elsewhere – have the reassurance that, if their suffering becomes unbearable in their final days, they have the right to choose when to end their own lives. We know for dying people in those countries, this is effectively an insurance policy that allows them to lead happier lives.
I have tabled a Private Member’s Bill to legalise assisted dying because, as chair of Dignity and Dying, I want all of us to have that insurance policy and some control at the end of our lives.
We need a better alternative for dying people
Even with the best palliative care some symptoms cannot be controlled. This could be extreme pain, for example a person with cancer allergic to opioid drugs and other powerful pain-killers. Fungating wounds and terminal haemorrhages present other problems. Individuals with MND may not suffer pain but steadily and irrevocably lose the ability to move and who ultimately cannot eat, drink, speak or breathe unaided. For many people this strikes at the core of who they are as a person. Each of us has an idea of what we would find unbearable at the end of our life. All I ask is that we can decide for ourselves: is this level of suffering bearable for me?
Fundamental to this debate is the concept of personal choice and autonomy. In modern medicine patient choice has become central to decision making, progress reflected in huge increases in doctors’ support for assisted dying. Surveys by the Royal Colleges and the BMA have shown a majority of doctors want to abandon opposition to reform. The broader context of this debate has changed significantly since Parliament last considered a change in the law.
Safeguards are a central feature of my Bill. It is vital that dying people are protected from hypothetical examples of abuse, even more so than they are currently. At present dying people can starve themselves to death or they can reject further treatment, or end their own lives in other ways. We need a better alternative for dying people.
We plan robust safeguards: two doctors will need to certify that a patient is terminally ill and has no more than six months to live; that they have mental capacity to make the decision, and that their decision is not influenced by anyone else. Nearest relatives will be interviewed, and their views checked. A High Court Judge will have to be satisfied that the process has been properly undertaken. These proposals are even more conservative than the strongly safeguarded laws that exist across the English-speaking world. We know that those laws work well, providing reassurance to us as Parliamentarians that this is no step into the unknown. We know that assisted dying would be a compassionate, safe and welcome option for our citizens.
My aim: that people live as long and well as possible with the reassurance that they can die well when the time comes.
Baroness Meacher is a crossbench member of the House of Lords.