Assisted Dying: Making Policy Matter

The Liberal Democrats have a great policy on assisted dying, detailed in the Medically Assisted Dying motion moved by Chris Davies MEP in 2012. Yet it is buried in the depths of Conference papers past on our party website (see page 20, Conference Report Brighton 2012) and in the last general election manifesto there was only a bland half-line to show we support extending end-of-life choices at all.

As Davies’ motion notes, good assisted dying models already exist in several European countries, and having control over one’s own life is at the heart of liberalism. So why let this policy languish in obscurity?

Our party should be at the forefront of changing the law.

Here are three of many reasons why:

1. Current practice discourages patients from holding open, honest conversations with their doctors about end-of-life choices. This leaves them disempowered.

2. Patients cannot request a medically assisted death under any circumstances, including when there is a high degree of suffering, low quality of life and no chance of recovery. This violates their rights to dignity and adequate standards of living.

3. An average of one British person every eight days travels to Switzerland to end their lives, as noted by Dignity in Dying’s research paper ‘The True Cost’. This option is only available to those who have financial means and can cause additional stress to the individuals, their families and friends.

So, how can we put policy into practice?

We have a ready-made template: the Abortion Act 1967. A determined Liberal MP, David Steel, introduced a Private Members’ Bill and an equally determined then-Labour MP, Roy Jenkins, secured government backing for this contentious change in law. They successfully navigated the issue of abortion from the realm of criminality to that of healthcare.

Half a century on, that same shift is exactly what’s needed for the issue of assisted dying. It’s a move that requires bravery and co-operation. And, as argued by Dr Michael Irwin, founder of My Death My Decision, it will continue to grow in relevance:

As the average member of the public becomes more and more aware of the various scenarios which can occur at the end of life, and as the world’s population ages, so public interest in palliative care and assisted dying will increase.

If we are serious about extending end-of-life choices, we must put assisted dying alongside improving palliative care, doctor-patient relationships and empowering individuals to make their own decisions. The current situation, where it sits alongside medical silence, journeys to Dignitas and fear of family members’ prosecution, is simply untenable.

At the heart of the assisted dying debate is patient autonomy.

It’s what Liberal Democrats do best: devolve power down to the most local level possible, and champion the rights of the individual.

Let’s do everything in our power to turn good policy into good law.

* Carrie Hynds stood as the Lib Dem candidate for Hove in the 2017 general election. She is an avid campaigner on right-to-die issues, affordable housing and continued EU membership.

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  • Jason Dixon 3rd Sep '18 - 5:51pm

    I agree with you 100%. Assisted dying is an issue which is woefully underrepresented in parliament, despite consistently strong public support for it.

    Another issue is that what little parliamentary support there is for it seems to be confined to allowing it for those with six months or less to live, which is problematical not only because that time-frame is hard to predict, but because it ignores people who suffer unbearably and incurably with many years left to endure it.

    I feel the Netherlands/Belgium model would be much more appropriate than the American Oregon model, and this is the kind of law advocated by My Death My Decision and Humanists UK. I’d be very encouraged to see the Liberal Democrats get behind this in a meaningful way.

  • Well said Carrie! I’ve always found it hard to think of a policy that is more fundamentally Liberal than this one. As you say, the arguments are gradually being won on this issue, and we should be at the forefront of making it happen.

  • Perhaps it is time for the nation to give serious thought not only to the question of Assisted Dying for those known to be painfully approaching an expected death, but also to the broader matter of assisting suicide for anyone, ill or not, who is old, and who wishes to evade a slow but potentially wretched last years. Why? Because we hear more and more from bleating politicians , about the approaching social and economic problem of how we are to care for a rapidly growing multitude of those in their eighties and nineties and more. Governments may bleat, but they do nothing to solve this problem; and that is understandable, because we have none of us been brought up to question the belief that the avoidance and prevention of death is life’s and society’s primary goal. That must change, following a rationally humane appraisal of the possibilities, by the nation as a whole.
    One solution might be to offer every pensioner what might be described as (but not called) State Assisted Suicide: “Take your suicide pill this year, and you get a free funeral, and your estate gets (eg) £2,382. Your next such offer, in two years time, might be a higher or a lower figure, which will depend on the likely public cost of your future care as estimated then.” The offer for a healthy 80 year-old living at home would be much lower than that for an 88 year old on long-term life-support hospitalisation, and the choice would be his or hers (doubtless for many after discussion with their families).
    The purposes, I hope it can be seen, include :
    1 a reduction in the public funds ‘wasted’ on keeping alive those who would rather die.
    2 a reduction in the uncertainty and anxiety for families whose funds are being depleted in the expense of long-term care.
    3 an elderly life free of anxiety about the prospect of pain and destitution if life is dragged on too long.
    4 an improvement in the morale in the medical and other caring professions, in knowing that all their patients have chosen their treatment, in preference to the alternative offer of State Assisted Suicide and its attendant postmortal perks.

  • Jason Dixon 5th Sep '18 - 12:11am

    Roger Lake, the state offering any kind of financial incentive for people to end their lives is wholly unacceptable. I strongly support the right to a peaceful death for those suffering unbearably and incurably, but what you are suggesting can only be damaging to the cause.

  • Jason Dixon. I agree with your fear that what I suggest might be damaging to the Dignity in Dying cause, and must not be allowed to contaminate and jeopardise that campaign. I did not mean to suggest that it ought to be associated with it at all, though of course the two ideas are closely related. Accelerated death seemed to be the topic, and I simply seek to widen it, with a gentle nudge.

    You do not say why my suggestion is ‘wholly unacceptable’, but I recognise that, today, you are almost wholly correct. But all I urge at present is that, given the government inactivity, it is time to consider what is to be done about excess longevity, and that we should reappraise the almost universal unthinking acceptance in the western world, that nothing is more important than postponing death. If the old were given the chance to weigh the pros and cons, some would choose it, and some would not. Incentives such as the two crude financial ones I suggested might result in an increased death rate, shrinking the problem which I accuse governments of bleating about. I know it feels squalid and ‘unacceptable’, but perhaps it ought to be unacceptable that closing our eyes to the problem might condemn many to a long old age of pain and want. I know that I shall not be pleased, to find my family come to wish me gone!

    David Raw, I’m another of the older squad, and I didn’t suggest it’s us who bleat, but governments (or Parliaments) who resist calls for changes that would ease the pain of many families. My wife, like you, enjoys the life given by a successful transplant, so I’m glad you’ve highlighted Organ Donation Week — cheers!

  • Jason Dixon 6th Sep '18 - 11:49am

    Roger Lake, in my opinion there should be no coercion for people to end their lives. The drive to legalise assisted dying comes from brave people like Noel Conway and Tony Nicklinson who find their situation unbearable, not from their relatives or the state who find them a “burden” (which is a common fear expressed by opponents).

    That’s why I found your suggestion wholly unacceptable, it has a strong potential to influence the individual’s decision to die. The motivation must only come solely from the individual in question who finds their quality of life unacceptable.

  • Jason Dixon and David Raw: I understand the arguments of each of you, I think, and sympathise with them. If the matter were more debated I might well find that I actually agreed with them. And that is why I am not actually advocating the crude scheme I outlined, so much as sketching in an idea which merits discussion, as one way to offer relief to those who desire it, and half a solution to the national problem of coping, practically and humanely, with a problem slowly being highlighted by government: it would, I believe, be one solution, both for society, and for many of the individuals of whom society is composed.

    I think the fear of coercion is often exaggerated. And (respectfully ignoring those with certain religious or moral objections) I believe it comes mostly from those on the political right, which is based, essentially, on a willingness to think the worst of their fellow countrymen — as, for example, the belief that most people only work for earnings, and not from enjoyment or notions of service, so that such motives can be ignored, except in praising the grossly underpaid for bowing before the wind of Austerity as it blows ever harder.

    In old age many will find they have no family left who might have an interest in coercing or persuading them; they might find some satisfaction in the offer of a way to help finance the NHS by sidestepping a wretched decline. So I think the danger of the old and infirm being cruelly bullied by others is not great — and certainly less of a danger than the one government warns us of, too many old folk imposing their piteous needs on their hapless juniors, known or not.

    There probably is a better way than I suggest here, but we shall not find it unless we all think about adjusting our ideas about life, its purpose and its expiry.

    And thank you for the greetings to my wife!

    And apols if this is so late that you looked and didn’t find it.

  • Jason Dixon 10th Sep '18 - 9:15pm

    Roger Lake, what you are outlining, crudely or otherwise, is the state incentivising people to end their lives in order to save the state money. You really need to be debated on this issue to consider it a bad idea?

    Furthermore, to casually float this idea when people like Noel Conway are desperately fighting the current law in order to end what they feel is unbearable suffering seems ill-advised to say the least.

    With all due respect, if you truly do believe in the right to die, you need to look more at the aims and objectives of organisations such as My Death My Decision and not at concepts which sound like they belong in a dystopian novel.

  • Teresa Bates 22nd Nov '19 - 4:41pm

    Assisted dying and euthanasia is a dangerous slippery slope. You only have to look at countries that have legalised this and see the abuse it has caused. Good palliative care is the answer

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