Vince: I have changed my mind on assisted dying

Vince Cable has become the first party leader to come out in favour of the legalisation of assisted dying.

We don’t often link to the Daily Mail, but will make an exception for Vince’s incredibly moving article. 

He talked about losing both his mother and his first wife and how he at that point was opposed to assisted dying becoming legal.

He says he has changed his mind after listening to the concerns of constituents.

And he describes how he and his wife Rachel have discussed the issue:

We both agreed that if ‘assisted dying’ were legal, we could not allow the other to suffer intolerable pain should they wish to bring it to an end.

Vince  has spoken before about his mother’s breakdown as a result of Post Natal Depression and how adult education played a huge part in her recovery. In later life, though, she suffered mental illl health again.

When I visited her towards the end of her life she sometimes begged to die, to be released from her unhappy state; but on other occasions she insisted on her love of life; simple pleasures like a walk in the park, and by the river.

Without self-worth, however, she was obsessed about being a ‘burden’. I could see all too clearly that, in a permissive regime for assisted dying, fragile and muddled people like my mother would easily be persuaded to sign up.

When his wife Olympia died from Breast Cancer in 2001, she would never have considered assisted dying:

Her last few years with crumbling bones and loss of mobility were very difficult, undignified and painful too.

But she was a brave, resilient and positive woman who wanted to keep going as long as she could. She actually hung on until I had been re-elected in 2001, giving whatever practical help she could in bed and at the end of a telephone.

And her last wish was to die at home surrounded by her family and with their love. The whole notion of assisted dying never crossed her lips and she would have been appalled at the idea. And that confirmed my prejudice.

He has now been convinced that people should have the choice, with appropriate safeguards, to choose assisted dying  and he would support Private Members’ legislation:

I have since met people who feel strongly in the opposite direction: who are not confused or mentally ill but deadly serious and consistent; who may not have the option of being at home with a loving family; who face ending their lives either in constant pain or with no dignity.

And they don’t have the money to be flown to a clinic in Switzerland.

I respond with arguments about ‘slippery slopes’ and how a system of assisted dying could be abused by greedy relatives bringing pressure to bear and overworked doctors (or worse) signing on the dotted line if asked; and how the elderly and disabled would fear coming under pressure to stop ‘being a burden’.

Having talked at length to some of the campaigners for assisted dying it is clear that these fears and reservations can be addressed: that strict safeguards can be built in to protect both the patient and the doctors involved.

I have supported assisted dying for many years. I don’t feel I have the right to say to someone with a terminal illness that they must endure whatever unbearable suffering comes their way. I feel that if they want to opt out of that, they should be able to. As long as nobody is forced down that route, which, with appropriate safeguards in the legislation, can be achieved, then we should legislate.

I’m glad that Vince has added to the debate on this issue with his frank and poignant article.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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22 Comments

  • Well done Vince.

  • nigel hunter 9th Feb '19 - 5:58pm

    It is a very emotive subject but with experience of life behind him and others mental anguish he has changed his mind.Time does change attitudes.. This is one subject that now needs to be brought into the present but old habits die hard.. A Dignitas in the UK in the future could be a possibility

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Feb '19 - 6:10pm

    I agree with Vince. I too have changed my mind.

    I argued against the idea when the subject was raised in the past, but if there are satisfactory safeguards to minimise the possibility of coercion, it is for those who are suffering, or in imminent danger of suffering because of progressive disease, to exercise control over how they spend their final days.

    It is wrong that those who are suffering and their anguished loved ones should have to make a possibly uncomfortable journey to a foreign country so that the person’s last wishes are met.

  • Chris Randall 9th Feb '19 - 6:34pm

    I have watched 5 individuals die and only 2 of those went well, my Son’s death almost destroyed me, my Mother’s not so much and my Fathers less still but they were all very upsetting drawn-out affairs that could have been handled far better. The truth is my cat and my dog’s exit from this world was far better they went feeling our care and love in a far happier condition. How can it be we allow a human to due to die in such awful circumstance without aid in a most tragic way. We right now force a set of outdated, outmoded rules on people without a religious view, it is wrong at all levels. Those who believe otherwise need to consider that it would be far better for those of us who choose, when to go, went with their families around them having the right checks and balances in law to support that decision.

  • Matt (bristol) 9th Feb '19 - 7:50pm

    I’m sorry, but having worked in UK hospitals, I cannot believe there will be ever totally reliable safeguards.

    Even with so many dedicated and well trained staff, too many people die because of lack of imagination or lack of the right questions asked or the wrong information going to the wrong place.

    Even the current DNAR (do no attempt resuscitation) process can too easily be reduced to mechanised form filling, or a pathological fear of asking the person what they actually want, allowing well-meaning relatives to become decision makers illegally.

    Assisted dying just ups the stakes on the game of roulette hospitals are already playing. It will not empower the individual – or it will only empower the well-informed, well-educated, articulate individual.

  • George Kendall 9th Feb '19 - 10:49pm
  • Tony Hutson 10th Feb '19 - 1:22am

    Well done Vince. Not just for coming to (what I believe to be) the right conclusion, but for speaking publicly about changing your mind. Our politics doesn’t exactly encourage the perfectly human process of changing your mind. It is very typical of Vince to demonstrate such gentle intelligence and open-mindedness on a very tough subject – and then have the courage to say so when he doesn’t have to.
    I would like to believe we will be the first political party to favour assisted dying as a formal policy. As many safeguards as you like – absolutely. But the basic principle is a fundamentally liberal one.

  • I have had to witness some distressing deaths; loved ones in pain, knowing they weren’t going to recover. Their carers under great emotional and physical strain. I don’t want that, I don’t want to go in pain, I don’t want my family to have to be my carers, to have to experience what my wife went through with her mother, crying with fatigue, crying with back pain from lifting their dying loved one, crying with guilt that they haven’t done enough to prevent her mother’s pain. Having to be responsible for administering medication, including morphine.
    I want to be able to say “enough”, to decide to go in a way that retains my dignity, that doesn’t damage my family.
    How can there be any problem with that ?

    Palliative care ?, our local hospice was involved, but with 18 beds for five local towns we were never going to get a bed. Can’t cope ? “put her in a home” was the advice they gave the day before she died.

  • Death is never going to be ‘nice’.People suffer, and that’s hard for loved ones to watch. We get a vet to kill a pet and tell ourselves it’s kinder when what we really mean is it’s less-painful for us to ‘get it over with’ quickly. (Animals themselves don’t want to be put out of their misery – their survival instinct is too strong).

    And who really trusts ‘safeguards’ to truly protect anyone/anything?

    If we go down this euphemistic route of ‘euthanasia’, ‘assisted dying,’ who exactly do we employ to kill patients/help them kill themselves?
    Because I don’t want to be treated by a doctor who is willing to kill someone even if it’s with noble intentions.

  • Michael Romberg 10th Feb '19 - 11:34am

    Good to have changed your mind. But now let’s have a coherent policy.

    Fine to say that there should be safeguards to ensure that people are speaking for themselves – though let’s not overdo it (ideas like approval from a High Court Judge are way over the top).

    But there is no basis for restricting the right to assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. Anyone who wishes to die and get help should be allowed to do so.

    It is not for society to insist that unhappy people be made to live.

  • Cassie,
    You would be free to make your choice, don’t deny others their choice.

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Feb '19 - 2:27pm

    @ Cassie,
    My husband and I have discussed this in relation to our own final days. At the moment the choice we have made would be illegal if we can’t travel to a dignitas clinic.

    I am sorry, but whether in relation to having a beloved pet to sleep, or fulfilling a loved one’s pre-arranged decision that they do not want to suffer prior to death, it has never, in my experience been about making oneself feel better. The decision to ‘let go’ of something or someone one loves is the final unselfish act of love, and I hope that if and when the time comes, my husband and I will have the strength to keep our promise to each other.

    All decisions carry risk, and I don’t believe that there are absolute safeguards against anything. We can only make safeguards as watertight as possible.

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Feb '19 - 1:02pm

    Tony Hutson, there may well be the centre of gravity in the party now for this to become official policy. For me, along with some of our other more socially libertarian policies, it would give me pause about my continued membership.

    (Depending on the precise form the policy took, of course — and as I think of it, can I check whether this matter is devolved or held purely at Westminster?)

    I believe there is a role for a democratically empowering party that is radical on poverty, devolution, reform and its structural critique of the political system but seeks to form a coalition on social/moral policy that includes centrists, moderates and relative conservatives.

    I worry that removing barriers to individual rights and continuing the deconstruction of communal identity and values that our culture is engaged in, without fixing our constitutional structures will just pave the way for right-libertarianism and neoliberalism (which is effectively what happened with the Coalition, not of our own conscious choice, but because of our powerlessness to build structural barriers against any of the various factions of the individualist, corporatist or collectivist Right).

  • Nigel Jones 11th Feb '19 - 2:49pm

    Dame Cecily Saunders founded the hospice movement in the UK, opening the first one in 1967. Soon after she invited the leader of the campaign for euthanasia to visit; after his visit he apparently said that if everyone could be cared for in the way that happened in the hospice, then there would be no need for his campaign. That for me, forms the basis for my view that assisted dying (meaning providing the means for them to die when they say so) is not something I can support.
    I take the point that each person should be free to decide for themselves, but on such an issue there is the tricky question as to how and when they can make the right judgment. Is there not a way of enabling people, once it is known they are about to die to support them personally and medically to die ‘in peace’ ?

  • Peter Hirst 11th Feb '19 - 3:32pm

    Once assisted dying is on the statute book, our young children will grow up in that culture and under those circumstances can plan for under what circumstances they would probably invoke this measure. It is an invaluable safety net so our quality of life can be maintained right to the end of our life. There is no personal greater decision and enhances autonomy and self respect.

  • Jason Dixon 11th Feb '19 - 7:32pm

    I’m very pleased to see Mr Cable come out in favour of assisted dying.

    However I take issue with Dignity and Dying and all those in favour of limiting assisted dying to the terminally ill. The unbearably suffering deserve the right to die too.

    Review the case of Tony Nicklinson and think whether it’s right he, and people in his situation, should be excluded from any forthcoming law. I would say he absolutely should have had the right to die peacefully.

    The Assisted Dying Coalition, Chaired by Lib Dem Carrie Hynds, advocates on this basis. Let’s not just get *a* law, let’s get the right law.

  • Bernard Aris 12th Feb '19 - 12:50pm

    As a proud member of D66, the social-liberal, postmaterialist party who premiered this legislation back in the 1990 (final version: 2001), I’m pleased as Punch that after 21 years of LibDem conferences (starting Autumn 1997), doing so, Vince has let himself be assured and converted to this standpoint.
    Reading the harrowing lines he wrote in his autobiography “Free Radical” about his former wife’s Olympia’s bravery and harrowing death, and about his mothers suffering after her Post Natal depression and in her old age, this is impressive stuff.
    Nick Clegg said at an autumn conference under his leadership that allthough he knew first hand (as perfect Dutch speaking) about the Dutch (=D66 law) experience, he still wasn’t convinced. I hope he, too, will have learned more about the Dutch experience with strict and (as far as I can see) effective (including juridical) controls against abuses, and with the support of all medical and disabled people’s organizations; and that he too will now support this.

  • Jason Dixon 12th Feb '19 - 1:28pm

    @Bernard Aris I agree.

    I’m sick of some sections of the media (not least, ironically considering where Vince’s article appeared, The Daily Mail) vilifying the Dutch assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia laws. The laws there work to the satisfaction of society and I see no reason why they can’t do the same here.

  • Poppy Hasted 12th Feb '19 - 9:01pm

    As a disabled person who has been restricted to bed, 24/7, for the past three year, I am very against. Money and thought needs to be put into, what I call, Assisted Living – ensuring disabled people and those with life-limiting conditions have the help and support to live the best life possible if that is what they want to do, not get killed off or thrown away like a faulty model, largely, because the support is not there. Assisted Dying, in my view, allows non-disabled people to distance themselves from the more difficult question of supporting disabled people and brush us under the carpet. Until disabled people are assisted to live and function and have the best life possible, it’s not a fair choice and I believe Vince is wrong in giving his support to this. It’s almost as if he is saying we don’t matter as much as non-disabled people and that our party should give up as its too difficult. This is not the message I want to see our party supporting.

  • @Poppy Hasted

    Disabled people do matter regardless of this law coming in. Indeed a majority of disabled people support a change the law, and the people fighting for this right in the courts have also been disabled, either through terminal illness or otherwise.

    There’s no suggestion that disabled people in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands are valued less. Indeed the Lib Dems are doing their level best to stay united with our European partners, and on assisted dying laws I think we can learn from some of them too.

  • There are several issues here and for me, the safeguards are crucial. Religion does not necessarily dictate a view on this, especially where death before long is inevitable. In any case, as with the Tim Farron and gay sex issue, the Liberal position is that anyone can have personal views on what is right (whether founded on religion or not), but should not seek to force them on others unless a third party is harmed; thus the personal view becomes a matter for that person and their discussions with other individuals, not a political issue for legislation.

    Vince was right all along that a permissive regime on assisted death could lead to people who were costing the system a lot of money being “terminated” when confused or in a dark mood on the decision of a professional used to making DNR decisions. So any fair process has to incorporate a delay for the person to reconsider and an advocate independent of the health provider and the family to protect the person’s interests. But to deny assisted dying to all but the quite rich is discriminatory and is indeed imposing the views of some on others.

    Finally, having experienced three frail, old people deteriorating slowly, often without dignity, the last of them my mother, I strongly agree the whole system needs to change, with more resources, more understanding of patients and relatives and above all, fewer non-communicating silos.

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