Assisted Dying

Part of Sale of New Petrol and Diesel Cars and Vans – in the House of Commons at 3:48 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 3:48 pm, 4th July 2019

I am glad the House has a chance to think about this again. I also remember Rob Marris’s Bill, which I voted against not because I was not sympathetic to the issues but because there was a lot of division among people in my constituency. The question of safeguards came up repeatedly, as I recall.

What has changed since then, as the Assisted Dying Coalition points out, is that the numbers going to Switzerland have virtually doubled. Parliament now finds itself in a position where we can decide to intervene and change the law, or we can accept random prosecutions, interviews under caution and denying assistance to people who seek it.

Contrary to what Fiona Bruce said, I think we can draw much better conclusions about safeguards on the basis of Canada’s experience. In Canada, assistance is not available to non-residents, and that discourages suicide tourism. Assistance is not available to minors; it is not available to people who have a history of mental illness; and it is not available on the grounds of mental illness, long-term disability or any curable condition. The safeguards include ensuring that none of the legal witnesses or physicians involved has any legal or financial interest in the outcomes of the patient. Consent must be repeatedly expressed, not implied, and consent can be revoked at any time and in any manner. To receive a medically assisted death, patients must be experiencing intolerable suffering and must sign a written request expressing their wish to die. As we have heard, two independent witnesses are required. I would say that those are quite strong safeguards.

We have also heard that the view of the medical profession in this country has changed; I think Nick Boles referred to the Royal College of Physicians, and I know that there will be a poll of the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to listen to tetraplegic Paul Lamb, who spoke at a humanist event in the House, and I was very moved by the case that this very rational and sane man made. Traditionally, the argument for changing the law is based on the Oregon model, as we have heard, and it generally refers to people who have six months left to live; that was the case with the Marris Bill. I have some difficulty with that, if we are to look at the matter again, because I think there is a problem with being precise about life expectancy. In addition, such a narrow position would not help someone such as Paul Lamb. Paul has been living with his condition for 29 years. He is in intolerable pain that can sometimes only be controlled with very strong medication, which blurs his consciousness and limits his life experiences. He wants the right to choose, if he reaches a stage where he has no quality of life.

We need to focus on quality of life, capacity for life and the rational, sound judgment of a person who makes such a decision. Life expectancy in itself does not tell us anything about suffering. We should be considering assisted dying both in the context of terminal illness and in the context of suffering and a lack of meaningful life. That is especially true when we are talking about progressive conditions, conditions such as locked-in syndrome or intolerable suffering.

Some people have strong views about this subject, and they are influenced by their Church or religious community. Those organisations encourage people to contact MPs, and I understand that it is always going to be like that, but the Supreme Court did ask this place to consider the case for changing the law, and the Court recognised that that was a decision that only Parliament could make. Having listened to Paul Lamb and thought about it again, I think that we should be wondering whether things have moved on since 2015. The poll that was released by the My Death, My Decision group shows that the level of support for a change in the law is now about 88%. I think that is significant, and I am surprised that people would want to ignore that.

Of course, as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, we are a democracy. It is our job to wrestle with these decisions, not to rely on the fears of particular groups. It is our job to make sure that we get the safeguards right. It seems to me that the choice is simple. We cannot stop assisted dying; we can only prevent legal assisted dying, which would be open, transparent and open to change and challenge.