Saturday, 12 July 2014

Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords

Recently a panel of nine Supreme Court Justices (the UK’s highest court) turned down a challenge to the status quo on the ‘right to die’ brought by the widow of Tony Nicklinson – the “locked-in syndrome” sufferer who fought a long campaign for assisted suicide – and Paul Lamb, another severely disabled man.

But, in a highly significant intervention, Lord Neuberger, the court’s president, said that they were doing so partly “to enable Parliament to consider the position”. He continued that if MPs and peers do not give serious consideration to legalizing assisted suicide there is a “real prospect” a future legal challenge would succeed.

At the same time, on June 5 there was the first reading of the “Assisted Dying Bill” in the House of Lords proposed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton (a former Labour Cabinet Minister). This was a formality and merely starts the process: the debate will be on July 18. In summary this is to Enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life; and for connected purposes.”

In effect this would enable terminally ill patients deemed to have no more than six months to live to be prescribed a fatal dose of drugs and is apparently largely modeled on a system operating in the US state of Oregon. The Bill will require patients to demonstrate that they have reached a “clear and settled intention” to end their life.

Clearly there are good arguments on both sides and it is unlikely that a way forward will be found that will answer them all.  Interestingly the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has spoken out in favour of the bill saying “promoting anguish and pain, the very opposite of a Christian message of hope”. The current incumbent disagrees. It isn’t an easy subject but has to be debated.

One can only look at personal experience. My mother had cancer over many years: it was a bone cancer and she suffered a great deal of pain on a daily basis. Whether pain control is better these days (she died 30 years ago) I don’t know but it wasn’t then. She was remarkably brave and even stoic and lived life to the fullest extent possible. However, having suffered many of those dark moments when the pain was almost unbearable her greatest fear was dying in pain. 

Some months before she died, she told me that her GP had assured her that if, at some point, the pain became unendurable he would ensure she had the means to take her life. (I wouldn’t write this if both parties were still alive.)  At the time I didn’t believe that he would and wouldn’t have minded had he done so. The thought that she had the control gave her the courage to continue. She died peacefully of kidney failure so it was never tested. I never asked him the question because he would not have been able to give me the answer “yes”.

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