Chris Davies MEP writes… Assisted dying is a liberal issue

It was a Liberal Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt (now the leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament) who ensured that legislation to permit medically assisted dying was brought forward in Belgium a decade ago.  Publication of the report by the independent commission on assisted dying, chaired by Lord Falconer, should be a reminder to our Liberal Democrat leadership of our own very similar party policy on the subject.

Medically assisted dying (the patient self-administering) or euthanasia (the doctor providing direct assistance) are very definitely liberal matters.  They are about respect for individual wishes when the frailty or immobility of the individual concerned gives them no option but to seek assistance.

Religious groups, sometimes in disguise, seek to impose their convictions that life must continue even if the patient does not wish it.  By denying free will their kindness becomes cruelty.  They claim that assisted dying legislation would put the lives of thousands of disabled and vulnerable people at risk.  But anyone who studies the legislation and practices in Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, will recognise this as scaremongering nonsense with no basis in fact.

In the Netherlands, for example, only two per cent of all deaths are attributable to euthanasia, and they most commonly involve cancer patients living at home and in the very last days of their natural lives.   In all three countries safeguards exist to prevent abuse and the right to die commands overwhelming public support.  The fears of those who criticised the original proposals have been proven completely unfounded, and the issue does not raise its head in election campaigns.

Personally I regard the Falconer proposals as too restrictive.  The common ground amongst reformers is that patients who seeks medical assistance to die must be suffering unendurably with no hope of recovery.  The hard question for lawmakers is to decide whether they must also be terminally ill.  I don’t find it acceptable to judge what “unendurable suffering” means to others, and I don’t know how I would tell a young man in a state of almost complete paralysis that they will be denied any assistance to escape a life that would certainly be intolerable to me.

Yet the Falconer package reflects the political realities of debate here.  If necessary, even more safeguards could be put into place.  Professor Cohen-Almagor at Hull University has suggested an exhaustive list of 20 possible safeguards that legislators could introduce to avoid any risk of the ‘slippery slope’ towards allowing people medical help to die simply because they felt a burden on others.

Palliative care will always be the preferred option for the vast majority of end-of-life patients and the one that must always command the priority of health professionals.  Yet there is no conflict or competition between palliative care and medically assisted dying; at the very end the two are hard to distinguish apart.  The only issue is patients’ choice.

Liberal Democrats are alone amongst the main parties in having debated the issue at our conference.  By a two to one majority we agreed that political action was needed, although we emphasised that there should be no whipped votes and that MPs should be free to exercise their consciences.

Now that we have a role in government it is time to put our agreed position into practice.  With Cameron on record as opposing reform our ministers will find it hard to gain agreement for the introduction of the necessary legislation.  But Liberal Democrats should insist that a commitment be given to the House of Commons: if private members’ legislation on the subject is introduced then parliamentary time will be allocated for its proper consideration and MPs will be given a free vote.

* Chris Davies was Liberal Democrat MEP for the North West from 1999-2014.

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15 Comments

  • coldcomfort 5th Jan '12 - 3:38pm

    The sanctity of human life, so beloved of ‘the religious’ (of all faiths), seems to be put on the back burner when it comes to sending people off to wars of dubious morality & legality or when Sunni are blowing up Shia or vice versa, and so on across the religious spectrum. Who said ‘Kill one person you are a murderer, kill 100000 you are a statesman’? Although some will doubtless argue that it should be, suicide is not illegal. So it would seem that the anti euthanasia brigade deem it better that I should kill myself while I still can rather than continue to enjoy what life I have until any quality of my life has deteriorated to the point where I am ready to go but can’t manage unaided. Who the hell gives these people the right to make these decisions on my behalf? Care Not Killing would be better named Cruelty Not Compassion. I had a relative who, having battled cancer for two years, decided to refuse all medication in the hope that his agony would kill him. After two weeks he had the longed for heart attack. Do that to a dog you are in prison. Doses of pain killer which are effective run the risk of being fatal and, not surprisingly, many doctors are afraid to administer them. There is not a shred of evidence of ‘slippery slopes’ and all the rest of the hypocritical hand wringing about ‘safeguards’ .

    Chris’s thoughtful piece deserves serious attention. Of course there need to some safeguards, rules & procedures but ’20 possible safeguards’ is just a mechanism for making any change in the law inoperable in practice. When you want to go the last thing that is needed is an obstacle course jumping through four sets of Olympic rings. No Party will bite this bullet. If the issue comes up as a private bill Liberal Democrats should, as Chris proposes, press for adequate parliamentary time & that there should be no Whip.

  • The protection of the law against being killed by other people is the most basic right. Nothing should be done to take that right away.

  • George Morris 5th Jan '12 - 5:38pm

    @Chris

    “The protection of the law against being killed by other people is the most basic right. Nothing should be done to take that right away.”

    What about the fact that nobody owns your life? Nobody can tell you to kill yourself, and nobody can stop you from doing so.

  • Cold Comfort
    I had a relative who suffered from motor neuron disease. I remember her words to my father in the hospice, “Take me home Roy I don’t want to die.” I think there is a danger that the terminally ill will feel that they have become a burden and they have to choose no longer to live.
    The dying should be made as comfortable as possible and if that includes giving pain killing drugs that may shorten life then so be it but nobody should lose sight of the belief that all life is sacred.

  • @George Morris

    “What about the fact that nobody owns your life? Nobody can tell you to kill yourself, and nobody can stop you from doing so.”

    What on earth is the relevance of this? You can kill yourself. This debate is about allowing others to kill you. That is absolutely unnacceptable.

  • coldcomfort 6th Jan '12 - 9:04am

    If that’s what your relative wanted Manfarang then that’s fantastic. Nobody is suggesting that someone should be ‘put down’ against their will. [ see also Chris’s comment]. And, of course, those making your relative’s choice should have all the support & help that’s available. The issue is that those making a different choice should also have that choice respected and be helped and right now their choice is not respected and they cannot be helped. Fair comment George Kendall – but there are recent stories of atrocities carried out in the name of ‘faith’ [and I was careful to not just mean Christian] . I didn’t say that people with religious views shouldn’t participate in the debate & have an opinion. Just that some of the arguments they put forward are perhaps best set aside because they are inconsistent.

  • I completely agree with Chris Davies piece.
    This is all about “ownership” and responsibility for one’s own life. At the moment, I am able bodied, fully functional and able to be completely responsible for everything regarding my life. I can think of several scenarios where I can categorically state now, that I would not want to continue existing, but may not, in those circumstances, be able to do anything about it.
    Why do I not have the right to make a living will, demanding that in certain circumstances, I should be eased of my suffering?
    I’m not asking the religious “sanctity of life” brigade to do the same, I’m just asking them to allow me to.
    They are forcing their own faith and beliefs on me which I find unnaceptable.

  • Richard Church 7th Jan '12 - 1:43pm

    To be clear, contrary to various posts here, this issue is not about people killing other people, it is about people killing themselves, with the assistance of others. As a fit, able bodied person I could go out and walk under a bus today. Other people do not have that choice, and they need assistance if they are to take their life in a dignified and painless way.

    Why should the ability to take one’s life be restricted to those people who are physically able to do it without the assistance of others?

  • coldcomfort 8th Jan '12 - 1:29pm

    Orangepan, no one is ‘attacking religion’ in the way you imply. The hospice movement does a fantastic job. But it is simple fact that some groups are vociferously opposed to the rest of us having the freedom to have our different view respected. I have watched with great attention spokespersons for some of these groups use emotional blackmail rather than rational argument in order to enforce their view. Since their view is largely the status quo it is not surprising that I disapprove.

  • Alan Williams 11th Jan '12 - 11:33pm

    With an increasingly large ageing population in the west the appeal of reducing the burden it throws on the rest of society also grows in line with it. Encouraging euthanasia under the guise of compassion, when we have the most highly developed medical techniques in history for easing discomfort in terminal illness, looks like special pleading for those who have to carry the burden. This is not a flattering picture for liberals.

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