Assisted Dying

Part of Sale of New Petrol and Diesel Cars and Vans – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:35 pm, 4th July 2019

On 4 June, in making the case for holding this debate to the Backbench Business Committee, the basic justification set out by Nick Boles was that a lot has changed since the House last debated these matters, and therefore it would be opportune for the House to have an opportunity to discuss them. I would like to go into that in some detail, in the short time that I have.

First, I want to say that I respect the views of others in the House greatly, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will respect my point of view, which may be very different from some of those expressed in today’s debate. I am a man of faith. My father was a man of faith; he died, and I know he believed in the sanctity of life, as do I. I believe that in my constituency of Strangford, the vast majority of my constituents also believe in the sanctity of life, and they also believe that the law should not be changed. I want to put that on the record at the start of my speech.

Both the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Physicians have moved to adopt a position of neutrality on the question of assisted suicide. The Royal College of Nursing actually adopted its position of neutrality some 10 years ago—six years before the Marris Bill came to this House. Neutrality is far from endorsement, and that has to be understood. It no more gives grounds to positively endorse assisted suicide in 2019 than it did in 2015.

The manner in which the Royal College of Physicians approached its poll, however, has had the effect of leaving a significant cloud hanging over it. In the 2014 poll, those who opposed assisted suicide were 44.4%; in the 2019 poll, they were 43.4%. The proportion opposed to assisted suicide is the largest by a significant margin, and almost identical to the 2014 result. For the Opposition side of the House—indeed, it is important for the whole House—I point out that in Tony Blair’s landslide 1997 general election victory, he received 43.2% of the vote. The Royal College of Physicians actually voted against this change by 43.4%. So there is a figure, when we come to stats in this House.

Before that poll, however, the council of the Royal College of Physicians, without consulting its members, decided that it wanted to go neutral, and structured the rules of the contest in such a way that that was bound to be the outcome. It took the extraordinary step of saying that unless 66% of respondents either opposed or supported assisted suicide, the college would adopt a neutral position. From that very moment, the result was a foregone conclusion. I want to talk about some reasons why it is the wrong one, and worded the wrong way.

Professor John Saunders, a former chair of the RCP’s ethical issues in medicine committee, wrote in The Guardian to accuse the college of carrying out

“a sham poll with a rigged outcome”.

Over 1,500 doctors and medical students signed an online petition expressing alarm over the college’s behaviour. Professor Albert Weale, chair of the college’s ethical issues in medicine committee, resigned in protest. He claimed that the RCP council failed to take notice of ethical advice that the committee had provided on the subject of the poll.