The Independent View: Assisted Dying Bill – Open Letter to Liberal Democrat Peers

House of LordsTomorrow will see the Second Reading of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords and many Peers including Liberal Democrats have registered to speak on this issue of compassion and respect for choice at the end of life.

This Bill and its passage through your House will serve as one of the most important chapters of society’s story of compassion, we want you to know that your Party overwhelmingly supports you on legalising the choice of an assisted death for terminally ill dying people.

It has been reassuring to see Norman Lamb, Minister for Care and Support publicly reaffirm his personal support for assisted dying, saying an individual should be able to “make their own decision about their life”. Parties have all indicated that Parliamentarians should be free to vote with their conscience and Baroness Sal Brinton has made clear her thoughts in the Telegraph, commenting that she “can’t understand how anyone could say that [terminally ill adults with six months or less to live] should suffer.”

As a Party, the Liberal Democrats have consistently lead on the issue of assisted dying, applying the principles of championing the “freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals” as set out in the Constitution.

Members democratically voted for and overwhelmingly passed the Medically Assisted Dying motion in 2012 and as recently as June of this year, Lib Dem Voice found that 82% of Lib Dems back giving terminally ill adults the option of an assisted death. It is clear that a majority of party members believe the choice to control one’s death at the end of life, when one is dying, is a fundamental right.

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill would provide the choice of an assisted death to terminally ill adults with six months or less to live. With this choice must come strict upfront safeguards which includes the requirement that two independent doctors assess a patient’s condition and that they hold a clear and settled intention to control their imminent and unavoidable death.

Dying people’s right to die well, long sought after by many terminally ill people has received support from important groups over the past few weeks. The reconsideration by Lord Carey, Desmond Tutu and the Bishop of Buckingham has allowed many within the Church of England to look upon the issue of choice at the end of life anew.

Likewise, disabled people such as Prof. Stephen Hawking and in your own House, Lord Low and Baroness Brinton are joining groups such as Disabled Activists for Dignity in Dying in supporting terminally ill dying people’s rights whilst remaining confident of our own right to life and independence.

Together with leading doctors and the British Medical Journal, these groups, individuals and around 80% of the public want to see the choice of an assisted death for dying adults and the Assisted Dying Bill provides this safeguarded option at the end-of-life.

Based upon the law passed in the US State of Oregon in 1997, 17 years of good practice now sees assisted deaths accounts for around 0.2% of total deaths in Oregon, a number that has remained stable over the last 5-6 years. Last year in 2013, 71 people out of the 30,000 who die annually in that State had an assisted death.

With a change in the law on assisted dying, no more people will die, but fewer people will suffer. Tomorrow you and your colleagues have a unique opportunity, to witness and partake in a thoughtful and rich debate which will no doubt continue into Committee stage as we explore together the limited choices currently available to terminally ill people who want the choice to control their unbearable suffering in the last few weeks and days.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Greg Judge is Campaigns Support Officer for Dignity in Dying. He also coordinates the Disabled Activists for Dignity in Dying group - a disabled supporters group for assisted dying for the terminally ill.

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11 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 17th Jul '14 - 8:43pm

    This is all very well Greg but this Bill is deeply flawed and will not sufficiently protect the vulnerable. If the Bill is as strong as alleged, I wonder why leading disabled charities such SCOPE and Disability UK and Action on Elder Abuse are so fundamentally opposed? Why are all the leading faith communities opposed – not just Christian but Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Jain?

    Do you not think a full psychiatric assessment should be made by doctors of a patient who request to lethal drugs to end their lives? This is not provided for in the Bill.

    What about those with depression? Don’t you think it is compassionate to treat this major illness which changes a person’s view of life and induces a sense of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts?

    Liberal Democrats must always seek to balance personal freedom and other-regarding freedoms. No person is an island and there are limits to private freedoms when they could seriously harm the freedom of others.

    There are documented cases in Oregon that show that far from everything being smooth-running, people with depression and elderly are being allowed to die because they are tired of life or fear being a burden – not unbearable pain.

  • @Helen Tedcastle. The reason some disabled groups oppose the Assisted Dying Bill is because they take a view without asking disabled people themselves. The same can be said for many of the faith groups too.

    The UK British Social Survey of attitudes which is independently produced and scientifically robust consistently finds that nearly every group strong supports the measures outlined in this Bill. That’s because the public understand that choice at the end of life for terminally ill, mentally competent adults, provided within strict safeguards is a kind and compassionate thing for those who are suffering unbearably.

    I note your suggestions that the Oregon experience, upon which much of the Bill is based, suggests that those other than the terminally ill and mentally competent are being allowed to use the law. There is not a shred of evidence to prove this. Perhaps you can quote one legal case, investigation, or even one legal officer that has confirmed this has happened. Desperate as you may be to oppose these measures, ignoring the facts simply undermines your argument.

  • “This is all very well Greg but this Bill is deeply flawed and will not sufficiently protect the vulnerable.”

    Could I ask you a question, Helen?

    If a system were devised which – in your view – did sufficiently protect the vulnerable, would you then support assisted dying?

  • Richard Dean 18th Jul '14 - 3:05am

    People’s feeling are acceptable as reasons for their opinions in a democracy. I wonder whether Keith Reed actually has any evidence for the claims he makes about reasons and those who oppose this bill?

    The actual bill is here:
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2013-2014/0024/2014024.pdf

    It looks seriously flawed to me. Two doctors are given the power to authorize an action that, without their say so, would be capital crime. Is this a first? Can two professional lawyers decide that cheating a client is ok? Not every doctor is competent or morally good, and there’ll certainly be some financial temptations here. How would anyone be able to prove, after the event, that two doctors acted maliciously?

    The President of the Supreme Court said “”no assistance … unless and until a Judge of the High Court has been satisfied that …”. Doctors aren’t High Court judges, and this bill does not provide the level of protection that this senior legal officer recommends.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/10974472/Assisted-dying-this-Bill-has-so-many-flaws-I-dont-know-where-to-start.html

    Personally I might go with the President of the Supreme Court, though I might prefer the present system in which medical staff who implement this kind of decision are open to the charge of murder. If you believe you are justified in taking someone else’s life, then you should at least be confident to be able to defend your decision if it’s challenged.

  • Matt Burrows 18th Jul '14 - 11:58am

    I find myself mildly opposed to the Bill:
    http://mattburrows24.tumblr.com/

  • @Richard Deans In answer to your question, there have been a number of reviews of this issue by committees over the past decade. When disabled groups have appeared before them and been asked if they consulted with their communities before outlining their opposition to these proposals the answer commonly given is no.

    You can of course speculate what would happen if we changed the law in the UK or look at the evidence of Oregon in the USA on which it is based and has over a decade of evidence to consider. There is not one incidence of abuse being identified. When the attorney general of the state was asked if it was likely to be picked up he confirmed that there were health professionals in every institution keeping a watchful eye to spot wrong doing.

    By denying a change in the law, you manage to overlook the greater dangers of pushing it into the shadows either in the UK where independent research has shown it happens already without safeguards or it being exported to Switzerland. Then there are the 1,000s of terminally ill mentally competent who suffer unbearable at the end of their lives because they can’t find a sympathetic doctor willing to act or someone to take them overseas. Keeping the unfair law as it has terrible consequences that those opposed tend to overlook.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 18th Jul '14 - 4:03pm

    Greg,

    Your piece does offer up a potentially interesting contradiction. You note that the Parties have told Parliamentarians that they can ‘vote their conscience’, yet your reference to Party policy gives an implied steer that Liberal Democrat Peers should vote one way, i.e. In favour of the Bill.

    I’m always uncomfortable about making policy on issues like this, but am aware that such motions do not mandate our Parliamentarians. As long as that is clearly understood, and this isn’t going to be a stick to beat people with…

  • Toby Keynes 19th Jul '14 - 9:16am

    Mark,
    I’m happy to confirm that Party policy on assisted dying is absolutely clear on this point: LibDem parliamentarians would have a free vote on any assisted dying bill. The resolution that was submitted by me and adopted at the Autumn 2012 Brighton Conference ends:

    “Conference calls for Liberal Democrat ministers:
    1. To press for the introduction of a government bill on the subject, allowing Parliament the opportunity to consider, as a minimum, the legalisation of those who are terminally ill to have assistance to die with dignity, subject to safeguards.
    2. In the event of a Bill being introduced through Private Members’ procedures, to press for time to be made available in the House of Commons to enable it to be fully considered.

    “Conference believes that any such legislative proposal should be determined by way of a free vote in order to respect the freedom of conscience of Parliamentarians.”

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th Jul '14 - 9:45am

    @ Helen Tedcastle,

    There are many legal sources that agree with you, the latest to publicize her views, Baroness Butler Schloss. others point out that hard cases make bad law.

    On the matter of the British Social. Attitudes surgery, one of the problems with such a survey is that those responding do not have al the information at their finger tips. Anyone who I know who supports the bill mentions that is was the sad case of Tony Nicklinson that caused them to change their mind, but Tony Nicklinson was not terminally ill so would not have met the criteria laid down in the bill anyway.

    Palliative care is far better in The UK than in Oregon. Also, if there is some criticism of those who. Hold the views they hold because of religious belief, I met the Late Dame Cecily Saunders and it was her deeply held religious beliefs that inspired her to become. A leader of the hospice movement.

    In another thread, the end of life of Nelson Mandela was mentioned. I read a newspaper article that suggested that he spent much of that on a life support machine. In the Uk there is already the opportunity to make a ‘Living will!, an advanced medical directive.

    I think that anyone who has read your postings over the long term, as I have will. Know that you are the most compassionate of humans.

    Liberal Democrat Voive has served its purpose as far as I am concerned, in informing me of the state of modern

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th Jul '14 - 9:47am

    Liberal,party thinking, so I wasn’t
    T going to read or write on here anymore, but I really wanted you to know that there is nothing about your stance on this that lacks compassion.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 19th Jul '14 - 10:12am

    Toby,

    Thank you for that clarification.

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