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Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 11th September 2015.

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Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South 12:34 pm, 11th September 2015

Madam Deputy Speaker, I have dispatched three quarters of my speech, and will try to keep to your time requirements. First, let me pick up on something that my hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer said. He did not allow interventions, which was a shame because we could have teased this matter out. The cases he cited would not be covered by this Bill. The people would therefore still be going to Dignitas, and would still come across the desk of the DPP for decisions on whether to prosecute. Secondly, in the Oregon example, the drugs are issued to the people wishing to take them, but it is amateurs who are around when they are administered. I would love to have had a proper debate with him about this, but, sadly, time is against us.

Before I get into the detail of the arguments, it is important to highlight exactly what we are talking about with assisted suicide. Members can call it assisted death if they wish, but we should be specific. Not surprisingly, more than half the people polled think that assisted suicide involves no pain or discomfort. Well, assisted suicide can take two forms. The first, which this Bill says it advocates, is as follows. The person is given a powerful medication to stop them from being sick. That is because the barbiturates that are used to kill them are a powerful emetic. The urge to throw up is strong and can be distressing and uncomfortable. The barbiturates are then dissolved in a tumbler full of water and have to be drunk. It takes between one minute and 38 minutes until the person falls into a coma. In around 7% of cases, the person suffers from vomiting or spasms. In one in every 10 cases there can be problems with administering the barbiturates. In Oregon, it takes, on average, 25 minutes for the person to die. But the longest period before someone died was four days. In addition, in about 1% of cases, the person has woken up.

In the Netherlands, where an injection is administered to end life, it normally takes the form of thiopental or similar to put the patient to sleep followed by pancuronium, which is used to kill the person. Most terrifyingly of all, the person at this point is completely paralysed so cannot communicate if they are still awake or in distress. They then suffocate to death. How can either of those be described as a dignified death? That is not putting someone to sleep or easing their passing. It is wrong to say that it involves no pain or discomfort and it is not necessarily quick—it is up to an hour on average before the person dies.

I know that the people who are promoting this Bill are motivated by the desire to alleviate suffering and by compassion, and we have heard some very powerful speeches on both sides of the argument today. Of course we are all moved and saddened by what we hear and want to act with compassion, but that compassion is misguided if we think that by prematurely ending someone’s life, we are alleviating suffering. There are ways to alleviate physical, mental and emotional suffering and they are done extremely well in this country. We hear those in favour of helping someone to commit suicide say that they do not want themselves or their loved ones to die in pain, but that fear should galvanise us to ensure that there is good quality palliative care not just from hospices but from across the whole health and social care system. That does not exist at the moment, and the report in 2011 highlighted that.

What does the law say about suicide? The 1961 Suicide Act as amended said that it was no longer a crime to commit suicide, and that was for a very good reason. It is not because society now thinks that everyone should have the right to commit suicide, but because society rightly thinks that someone who has tried to commit suicide needs help and support, not criminal punishment. But the Act quickly goes on to make the point that if someone helps another to take their life, then that is tantamount to murder, punishable by sentence of up to 14 years. There is a very important caveat. As the law wants to ensure that people are kept safe, it imposes that threat of severe punishment, but at the same time it wants to be merciful, which is why the DPP will decide whether a case goes to court. That is an important point.

Let me conclude with a letter from Jane, one of my constituents. Her husband, Richard, was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. On 11 September 2013—two years ago today—he passed away. She said:

“I was able to care for him and the last few weeks we had together helped us to come to terms a little with the inevitable…At one stage because I was caring for him seven days a week, Richard began to feel he was a burden to everyone to which I assured him he was not a burden. I can understand totally where he was coming from. I think changing the law would place pressure on vulnerable people. Those who are elderly, disabled, sick or depressed could feel an obligation to agree to end their lives for fear of being a burden on others. From the bottom of my heart, Mr Flello, I would ask that you could be there…to oppose this piece of legislation.”

That is one constituent of mine. I know that others have written to me, asking me to support the Bill, but for Jane’s case, we cannot let it go through.