Christine Jardine: MPs have a free vote on assisted dying. We should not deny choice to those who deserve it

Last week the Commons debated assisted dying. In a moving debate, MPs outlined some heartbreaking situations. Three of our MPs, Norman Lamb, Christine Jardine and Vince Cable, spoke. We’ll be publishing their speeches this weekend.

Christine Jardine outlined one particular irony: MPs have a choice that they don’t extend to those who are in the situation where they need it.

This is undoubtedly a hugely emotive and controversial subject, but I thank the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for giving us the opportunity to discuss it. I am convinced that I have not just a right, but a duty to work for changes in the law that will make it possible for people to have the individual right to choose their own time and manner of death. I am talking about people who, otherwise, will face a situation that will soon be very painful and that will also cause a great deal of stress to their family members. I have been lucky: I have not had to go through the sort of experience that we have heard about from other Members of the House.

Two years ago, I had a conversation with my husband about a friend who, we had just heard, had been given a terminal diagnosis. It was January. We said, “This year will be difficult. Christmas will be difficult. We will have to think about how to deal with it, but it will not be easy for him or for his family.” The irony of that conversation has never left me, because neither my husband nor the friend actually lived until Christmas, but the difference was that my husband died very suddenly. Our friend went through a long, painful, lingering death. If there had been a way that he could have been spared that, I would have wanted him to be offered that choice. There is also an irony in the fact that had I had the choice for my husband, I would have chosen the death that he had, rather than the one that our friend had.

The last piece of the ironic jigsaw is that, in this House, if we do make a decision on a change in the law, it will be a free vote, because we will regard how we vote on that law as a matter of conscience. Yet we have never taken up the challenge of giving that same choice, that same freedom of conscience, to the people who actually deserve it. If we are to take up that challenge—and I think we should—it will not be easy and it will not happen quickly. We will have to spend time on it. It will be extremely difficult for us all because we will have to examine our consciences and take into account the views not just of those who feel it is a necessary change, but of those who find it difficult for religious or other moral reasons. But we have a duty to do that.

Like probably every other Member here, I have received numerous letters from constituents this week, asking me to speak up for the change because they have been through experiences like the ones we have heard about so movingly today, and they want and need this change. We would sometimes do well to remember, as I am sure most of us do, that we are here to represent those people. We are told by Dignity in Dying, and in every other poll that has ever been done, that the majority of the public out there—84% at the last time of asking—believe that it is time for a change.

I saw the reports on television this morning about people who are currently facing this decision. They know that death is not far away, and would like to choose the manner of their dying. They would like to ​have what they believe is a good death. It is our duty to do whatever we can, for however long it takes, to ensure that they have that choice.

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  • Richard Underhill 12th Jul '19 - 11:55am

    I have always thought that I would fight for life and my wife understands that is the case.
    Ludovic Kennedy campaigned on this issue.
    I sat through a lengthy debate in the House of Lords, on the parliament channel. There is a disabled peer who spoke passionately and to the point “You are talking about ME!” She was and is right of course.
    My cousin David went on board a British warship returning from the Falklands war, contacted a rare South American disease and went into hospital. The doctors asked whether we would agree to cut off the support. There had been a short delay while his sister, who worked for an airline, had flown in from New York. We decided to go for a short walk and discuss the doctors’ request. When we returned a few minutes later David had died. We had not seen him. The doctors denied that they had decided to terminate the support, but the timing is very suspicious.
    There is a legal possibility of examining the doctors’ notes which we did not know at the time. The Commons should be reluctant to empower doctors to act against the Hippocratic oath and the work the medical professions do all their own lives, which is to preserve the lives of others.

  • @Richard Underhill

    Physicians withdrawing treatment in futile situations (known as “turning off the life support machine” for patients with brain death as determined by multiple physicians) is not related to the subject of assisted dying or euthanasia which is what Parliament is discussing (note that assisted dying and euthanasia are two different things as well).

    Withdrawal of treatment in futile situations has been around for a long time and occurs in all countries. In the UK, physicians do not require permission from relatives to do so (and rightly so), though it’s long standing good practice to communicate what is going on with relatives and arrange the time to withdraw treatment (“switch off the machine”) so that family that want to be present can be. It’s unlikely if physicians were in dialogue with relatives that they would suddenly withdraw support. As much as the timing seems suspect, your relative could well have died naturally (people on life support machine are by definition very weak and susceptible to die suddenly). But even if they did turn off the machine, there was no wrongdoing (in legal terms) on their part

  • Richard Underhill 12th Jul '19 - 3:32pm

    James Pugh
    Are you a doctor? or a lawyer? or an academic?
    An additional justification was that the disease was understood to be highly contagious.
    David was a civilian working for a defence contractor, previously fit.
    The ship was Royal Navy.

  • Helen Power 12th Jul '19 - 5:15pm

    I am a Wokingham Lib Dem member since 2010 and was proud to be elected a councillor in May 2018. In the same week as being elected I was told I had Cancer of Unkown Primary. In Sept 18 after 4 cycles of chemo that didn’t work I was told I had 6 to 9 months to live and with great sadness stood down from the Council. I am 53 and have two children aged 24 and 21. I am now living on extra time. Lib Dem MPs, please support assisted dying. Last year devastated by my prognosis knowing I had that choice would have eased my burden. Whether I would take that choice I don’t know but to have it would make living so much easier. It would give me a choice. I am living this terminal prognosis every day, please vote to give me and others a choice.

  • @Richard Underhill

    A doctor.

    If he had an infectious disease, then it was probably overwhelming sepsis that he died of. These are the least stable Intensive Care patients, and can deteriorate and die extremely quickly in spite of full physiological support offered in an Intensive Care setting. If doctors are considering withdrawing treatment (“switching off the life support machine”) then it’s following an assessment that has determined brain death, in which case continued treatment (“life support machine”) is completely futile. To be clear such situations are not considered “assisted dying” or “euthanasia”. Even extremely conservative countries like Malta, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia (which have extremely rigid “pro-life” legislation) switch off life support machines of brain dead patients every day. It’s not remotely related to assisted dying or euthanasia because the patient is considered de facto already dead.

  • Helen Power my heart goes out to you. Thankyou for sharing your experience.
    I have always been in favour of assisted dying, ever since seeing the film, ‘Whose Life is it anyway’ as a teenager. Today, at 48, I manage a health condition myself which is thankfully under control at the moment, but I’ve been told in time it may become more problematic and even life-threatening as I get older. In that situation, like you Helen, I want to have as much choice as possible.
    I see this as a fundamentally Liberal issue. I understand MPs have their own personal experiences and influences, so I’m never going to criticise anyone for how they vote on this, but I do hope the final decision is yes – and I believe it will be. In fact I believe a day will come when people will look back and wonder why it took so long.

  • It’s a very tough subject and we need to ensure that we don’t rush into producing legislation, but we can’t use that as an excuse not to start on the process of creating the relevant legislation and the required safeguards.

    For as long as I can remember, my dad has said he wants us to ‘switch off the machine’ and that he dreads a lingering death. James above rightly points out these are different issues, but there are similarities in the emotional response. Some people will always want to keep going with futile life support ‘just in case’, and the hope of a miracle cure around the corner is what keeps a lot of people with a serious disease going. Or in many cases, it’s what keeps the family going. The person themselves may have had enough of fighting before their family can come to terms with it.

    I admit, that whenever my dad raises the subject, I usually mutter about hoping that’s not necessary, then change the subject. But as we both get older, I realise that sweeping the subject under the carpet isn’t helping either of us. I think we have a wider problem that many of us just don’t want to talk about death unless we absolutely have to, as if that’s going to keep it at bay.

    I read a very insightful book a few years ago called “Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande. I don’t recall it specifically discussing Assisted Dying, but it did talk about how we need to think about and talk about how we want to die and live with serious illness or old age while we have the opportunity to do something about it. It’s not nearly as depressing as it sounds, and I recommend it to everyone who thinks they, or someone they care about may die sometime. But one of the key messages was that if we want to have ‘good deaths’, we need to be less squeamish about talking about it.

  • It is a complicated area. Turning off machines when the patient is brain dead and has no and no possibility of a future conscious existence seems like common sense. Allowing others to help you have a death of your own time and place is a fundamental human right if not the most fundamental human right. Perhaps some of the stigma behind suicide should also be debated if the decision is made following discussion and counselling and is a deliberate and prolonged decision.

  • Carrie Hynds 15th Jul '19 - 12:51pm

    MPs rightly have a free vote on the issue of assisted dying, but in the 2012 Lib Dem autumn conference, Chris Davies MEP submitted a policy motion that gained majority support. It is a particularly good framework because it talks about palliative care as well as the choice of an assisted death. As liberals we should be making the argument for a change in the law that puts patient autonomy front and centre. That means improving end-of-life choices across the board. Let’s move assisted dying from the realm of criminality to the realm of healthcare, legalise the choice of a medically assisted death and invest more resources in palliative care so that all choices have the support they deserve.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '19 - 1:38pm

    James Pugh 12th Jul ’19 – 7:25pm Thank you.
    Vince Cable’s change of opinion is on another thread.

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