The will of the people, the “Right to Die.”

This is the last of a series of three posts about the right to die, end of life care and its legislation. The first post can be seen here and the second one can be seen here.

Since we all are going to die and see loved ones die, everyone has a vested interest in the country’s approach to death in the 21st century. Many believe that choosing the manner and timing of your own death is a fundamental human right. 80-90 per cent of the UK’s population believes assisted dying should be legalised for those suffering from terminal illnesses, and this is a view held equally strongly by those with “left wing” or “right wing” views.

The Liberal Democrats have long supported legislation on the “Right to Die”, but the gap between our elected politicians as a whole and the public is huge. The last attempt at legislation to legalise assistance for those who are terminally ill and likely to die within six months, was defeated in the House of Commons by 212 votes.

Some of the concerns MPs have are around vulnerable people. People who may feel under pressure to end their lives so as not to be a burden to family, caregivers or a society short of resources, or that people may not have been adequately supported and so may make an ill informed decision. But when peoples fears are addressed and adequate support put in place the request of someone to end their life may not be made again, and in most cases it is “possible to achieve a dignified and peaceful death.”

The 2005 report of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill  also argued that there was very little public understanding of the issues involved, a criticism that is often made of the research done by polls. Yet, on his 85th Birthday Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said:

Two years ago, I announced the reversal of my lifelong opposition to assisted dying. I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs. I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass onto the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.

Our own Vince Cable, Archbishop George Carey and Victoria’s Daniel Andrews are others who have changed their minds. So if it is fair to think the public don’t understand the issues, then perhaps many of our moral and political leaders also do not have the understanding needed to justify the influence they have.

It is the treatment with compassion described above by Archbishop Tutu that must be at the heart of any legislation that supports people at the end of their lives, perhaps something wilfully not understood by opponents of such legislation. But assisted dying should be only one possible endpoint of terminal care in a modern, compassionate society. A service spanning care for the dying and palliative care, that includes Palliative Sedation, Assisted Suicide, and Clinician Assisted Death needs to be legislated for in the UK, as it is in Canada, Australia, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Belgium, and the State of Victoria for example. The reason for this is that it is the public’s view, pure and simple.

I believe that increasing liberalisation also will inevitably happen over time and so we as Liberal Democrats must continue to shape the most important debate of all.


* Dr David Harding is a Lib Dem member, and a former Lecturer and NHS Consultant

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