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Wed, 30 September 2020

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We need to reform assisted dying laws to give terminally ill people the right to die on their own terms

We need to reform assisted dying laws to give terminally ill people the right to die on their own terms

We should have an honest discussion about whether assisted dying law at present is working as intended, writes Andrew Mitchell MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Many MPs, like me, believe the current assisted dying laws lack transparency and are no longer fit for purpose.

Assisted dying is an issue that seems to unite the country and is beginning to unite colleagues in Parliament. It is the view of many that something must change, and change soon. 

Having recently taken up the position of co-chair of the APPG on Choice at the End of Life, I have been struck by the renewed interest in assisted dying amongst fellow MPs.

Many, like me, were once ardently opposed to assisted dying, but are beginning to see the need for a new debate on the subject. When we look around the world at places that have grasped this nettle, we begin to understand why. 

There is no reason why ten States in the USA – some for more than twenty years – should be able to give dying people choice over the ends of their lives but we cannot do this in the UK.

Since assisted dying was last debated in the Commons, six new US States have legalised assisted dying as well as two States in Australia, the whole of Canada and New Zealand. A third Australian state, Tasmania, will begin its debate on a new Bill today (Thursday). 

Last year the New Zealand Parliament gave its approval to assisted dying legislation, subject to a national referendum later this year. As I expect would be the case in the UK, that referendum is very likely to pass due to the overwhelming support for a change in the law amongst the people of New Zealand. 

So then, we must ask ourselves: If it is possible in those countries, why not our own? 

While other English-speaking liberal democracies are grasping this nettle and giving their citizens the right to die on their own terms, we are increasingly being left behind.

What we are calling for is a very tightly drafted, limited change in the law that would give dying people huge relief and peace of mind.

We would like terminally ill people, in their last six months of life, to be given the option of requesting medication to end their life.

They would have to be mentally competent, of sound mind and have a clear and settled intention to die. Doctors would assess them for their condition. Those who conscientiously objected to participating would, of course, not be obliged to do so. 

These proposals are based on laws that are demonstrably already working in other countries. Are we to accept that there is something different about the UK that would mean they could not work here? 

My colleagues sometimes fear that this could be the thin end of the wedge or some sort of slippery slope. But the laws we propose would be carefully considered and tightly drawn so that there can be no move beyond this point.

We should also have an honest discussion about whether the law at present is working as intended, whether it truly protects the vulnerable and what harm it causes to dying people and their families.

Many of my colleagues, like me believe the current state of play is lacking in transparency, has gross inadvertent consequences and is no longer fit for purpose.

Whenever a scaremongering story talks about the more liberal euthanasia laws of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, they neglect to mention that those laws started out from a point far beyond what we are proposing for this country.

Just like Canada, another Commonwealth nation that has changed the law, they never intended for assisted dying to be permitted solely for those who are terminally ill. We do. 

We should look to Oregon, where an assisted dying law has been in place for more than two decades, with no extension of its strict parameters, that is working well and that has provided the basis for assisted dying laws across the USA.

One in five Americans now live in jurisdictions where choice at the end of life is permitted. If Oregon’s laws were working so poorly, then why are so many more States following their example? And why have their laws formed the basis of change in Australia and New Zealand? 

While other English-speaking liberal democracies are grasping this nettle and giving their citizens the right to die on their own terms, we are increasingly being left behind.

This Parliament has the opportunity to make dying better and I hope we may be able to take this opportunity forwards. 

 

Andrew Mitchell is the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield and the co-chair of the appg on choice at the end.

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