Vince Cable: Why I changed my mind on assisted dying

In the final of our three MPs’ speeches in favour of assisted dying, Vince Cable explains what prompted him to change his mind on the issue.

I thank the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and others for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject. Members have spoken movingly and from experience about their views.​

I am someone whose views have radically changed. Until recently I was a vehement opponent of assisted dying, but I have changed my views and think I should explain why. That change is partly based on an understanding of why I was previously opposed to it, which was due to my own personal experiences. Two of those experiences were relevant, and I think they will resonate with many Members of the House.

One experience concerned my elderly mother who descended, as many do, into confusion and dementia, compounded by mental illness and depression. One week she would say, “Please, please end my life. I am a burden. I want to go”, but a few weeks later she would be enjoying the simple pleasures of life. I could see all too clearly that under a permissive system of assisted dying, people like my late mother would be extremely vulnerable.

My conviction at that time that assisted dying was the wrong route was compounded by my experience with my late wife, who contracted breast cancer and had a very long illness. She eventually died at home with good palliative care, surrounded by a loving family. She was vehemently opposed to assisted dying and wanted to live her life to the full. I guess that I took the view that that was her choice but should also be everybody’s choice.

I came to realise, however, that there are very different situations we need to understand. One thing on my conscience is that in my 20 years as an MP, two constituents came to see me to request help and political support for a campaign in the High Court to be allowed to die through assisted dying and, although I expressed sympathy, as one would expect, I declined to support their campaign. I was very wrong to do so. Both suffered from motor neurone disease, and I think many of us know of such cases. One has surfaced today: a man called Richard Selley in Perth, in Scotland, who is fighting for the right to assisted dying. I think we all know the nature of this condition. Although some people live with it, Professor Hawking being a famous example, in most cases it involves the physical degeneration of all bodily functions combined with absolute clarity of mind and very great suffering. It seems to me that we should consider the position of those living with it and similar conditions.

The argument that is deployed against doing so is that hard cases make bad law. That was quite well summarised by Lord Sumption, who gave the Reith lectures a few years ago, when he said assisted dying should be criminalised but that the criminal law should be broken. That is a somewhat strange way of putting it, but essentially what I think he was saying was that we should keep the law but turn a blind eye to exceptions and treat them compassionately.

I have thought about that argument, but it seems to me that the evidence is very strongly against it for a variety of reasons. However sensitive the Director of Public Prosecutions or the police might be—I am sure they are; the 2015 guidance is very humane—the sheer process of going through a criminal investigation and a caution is deeply traumatic, and probably the most difficult period of any person’s life. It is probably also difficult for the police who have to implement it.

We can all see from the evidence that the law simply is not working: from the fact that 300 people over the past decade have been through the pain—and, indeed, the expense—of the Dignitas solution, and the fact that ​about 300 people a year are killing themselves, often without medical support and in very painful circumstances. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) gave a very moving example, which I think showed the extent to which the law as it currently stands does not work.

When we put that together with the change in public opinion and the change in the views of the various medical bodies that would have to administer this and would be faced with the awesome responsibility of authorising assisted dying, I think the evidence is now very strongly in favour of a change to the law. I hope that when the opportunity arises, we will progress beyond the theoretical discussion to the practicalities of how we introduce humane legislation with proper safeguards.

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12 Comments

  • Well said Vince. Lots of people are changing their mind on this issue and it’s refreshing to hear it stated so openly from a senior politician.

  • Jack Brittain 14th Jul '19 - 5:03pm

    I am very sorry that Vince has decided to support assisted suicide for, what seems to be motor neurone disease cases.

    His personal experiences are the experiences many of us have had, and I see no reason why these should be discounted now.

    If assisted suicide is legalised for MND then why would people with other diseases or mental health conditions be exempt?

    So far, only a few determined cases make the journey to Dignitas. We do not know, under a legalised system in the UK, how many more would feel that the burden of being ill too much, fear they are putting that burden onto their loved ones, and conclude they may as well end it all. We see this occurring with alarming frequency in Belgium and the Netherlands where assisted suicide and euthanasia ‘safeguards’ have been repeatedly eroded in recent years, and the number of requests spiral upwards.

    It seems to me that the current law is there for good liberal reasons. To protect persons most vulnerable from those who would do them harm eg: through subtle coercion. I see no reason to believe that basic principle needs to be changed to help a few determined individuals to commit suicide with the help of a doctor.

  • @Jack, I don’t see it as Vince discounting his own experiences, or those of anyone else. He’s just listened to the experiences of people who hold other views, and realised that letting other people with different experiences make a different choice to the one he would have made in his own previous personal experience, is fair.

    I appreciate concerns that protections might possibly become eroded in the future, but why should those who really do know what they want be forced to carry on in misery and often in extreme pain because they don’t want to run the risk of their family being criminalised? Surely it is possible to do better for those people whilst maintaining safeguards? And while it is absolutely right to worry about how we safeguard those who do not wish to take this route, in doing nothing we fail to safeguard the wellbeing of those who spend their final months not just in pain, but dreading the pain they know is coming.

    Any change in the law must be done very carefully, but failing to do anything means we are condemning many people to a misery they don’t want.

  • My thanks to Vince for his straightforward announcement and explanation of a radical change of mind. It is surely a valuable shove in the right direction, for both public and parliamentary opinion on Assisted Dying.

    I hope another good effect of Vince’s declaration will be to stimulate sluggards like me to act on advice from all quarters, that everyone , and especially the older among us, should prepare and register the appropriate Power of Attorney, to give more effective authority and direction to families willing to act — and to medical authorities unwilling to do so — in accordance with a sufferer’s clearly expressed wishes.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '19 - 11:36am

    Professor Hawking was given 6 months to live and lived for decades achieving much that most others would not have been able to achieve. He had money and a lot of familial support, thereby making a strong case, but limited to people with this particular problem and limited to people whose future achievements can be recognised in time. His doctorate was not in medicine, but, universally we can hope for scientific advance in medicine, although funding is limited politically and threatened politically.
    There is no reference

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '19 - 11:43am

    There is no reference to the effect on the medical professions
    or the lengthy debate in the House of Lords,
    some of whom are older than the average MP.
    At least one is disabled.
    She said “You are talking about me!”
    I hope Vince Cable will be with us for a good long time, stand for the Commons again, and be available to give the benefit of his varied experience to younger leaders.

  • If we accept that suicide is legal as it is, then assisted dying for those who are not physically able to kill themselves should be also. Assisting suicide should remain a criminal offence so clear legislation is necessary. I’d prefer it to not be the direct responsibility of the medical profession as it is not their duty that is to prolong life and reduce suffering by medical means.

  • Carrie Hynds 15th Jul '19 - 1:05pm

    We need to move the issue of assisted dying from the realm of criminality to that of healthcare, and put the individual wishes of the patient at the heart of changing the law. It’s great to see Vince engaging with this issue and I hope our next Lib Dem leader will be brave enough to include Lib Dem policy on extending end-of-life choices (legalising the option of a medically assisted death alongside investment in palliative care) in the next general election manifesto.

  • I’ve come to the conclusion that on issues like this and abortion we must let our politicians speak from the heart and not put pressure on them by making it the issue we judge them by. Take abortion, Jacob Rees Mogg is against abortion and I respect him for not shying away from that view. Not because I’m for or against, but because I’d hate it if our politicians felt pressurised by the court of public opinion to say something they are morally uncomfortable at a personal level.

    Personally I felt it unacceptable the way the press went after Tim Farron because he was a Christian. Let’s just say viva la difference on issues like this and move on.

  • Andrew McCaig 15th Jul '19 - 10:03pm

    My father was a lifelong Liberal, a physicist, and a convert from Methodism to Humanism as a young adult. He was a strong believer in voluntary euthanasia (as it was known in those days), and explained it to me in very Liberal terms as a matter of individual liberty and conscience. I well remember using the topic for my O-level English oral presentation!

    I have always agreed with my father on this. Choosing to end your own life is a personal matter, and not one the State should interfere in. Where a person has clearly expressed their view consistently over a sufficient period of time, people who assist them in controlled circumstances such as Dignitas should absolutely not be criminalised, and prior agreement should prevent any need for investigation. The Swiss have it right.

  • I support the principle, but my experience of the death of my parents and those of my partner over the past five years leave me feeling very wary in practice. After my father died I found information about Dignitas amongst his papers: my mother, to whom he had been married for 70 years, had dementia and had become aggressive towards him, but he had been unable to accept that she needed to be somewhere safe that she could be treated by specialists and he had become severely depressed and saw death as the only solution. He needed help from professionals, but in true British stiff upper lip fashion wouldn’t ask for it or even acknowledge his need. NHS policy/incompetence managed to kill him and my partner’s parents anyway. If you are old and ill you seem to get assisted death whether you want it or not.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Jul '19 - 7:55am

    Vince Cable was on Politics Live on 15/7/19.
    His future includes more books and dancing competitions.

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