There is no doubt that this is a deeply sensitive debate on matters of considerable gravity, and I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate this afternoon. The topic of taking a life is not one that this House can or should debate lightly, and clear opinions—including strong points and robust arguments—have been expressed on both sides this afternoon, including by Members who have been directly affected. We heard from the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), Sir Vince Cable and my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi, who all referred to personal experiences. We also heard the passionate and emotional speech from my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield. It is always difficult to stand up in this place and refer to very personal matters. Whether we agree on those matters or not, we should pay tribute to hon. Members who show bravery in talking about their experiences.
In the short time I have, I will seek to summarise the debate so far. We have heard arguments made about why the law on assisted dying should be changed. The primary point that is put forward for changing the law is that it would end individuals’ suffering in the final days, weeks and months of their lives after having been put through the tortures of terminal illness. A further point about individual liberty is also made, with hon. Members stating that we have free will, are responsible for our own lives and should be able to choose the time and place of our passing when we face a terminal illness. Many state that the safeguards that would be absolutely necessary should assisted dying be legalised can be put into place to prevent abuse of the system. Several hon. Members have mentioned the finances and the fact that if one has means, one is able to travel out of the country, but none of these issues should ever be linked to one’s ability to pay.
There is resistance to changing the law, and as some hon. Members have pointed out, any attempt to legalise assisted dying for people with terminal illnesses represents a slippery slope that can start with legalised assisted dying but then escalate to legalised assisted suicide and legalised euthanasia. Such a situation, it is argued, would be beyond what was originally envisaged in legalisation for assisted dying and could lead to further issues. For instance, people with terminal illnesses or chronic conditions, particularly the elderly, could see themselves as being a burden on their friends and families and could opt to end their lives to allow them to escape those perceived pressures. Another concern is that the elderly and those with medical conditions could be pressured into ending their lives against their will by a number of different people.
There has been some resistance from the medical profession—the British Medical Association has set out its opposition to the policy, and the Royal College of Nursing has refused to advocate it—although a number of Members have rightly pointed out that the profession’s position has also been shifting of late.
One of the positives that will emerge from this debate is that we are talking about death, because, as a country, we do not do that enough. Death is one of society’s last great taboos, which we still have not overcome. We close up and do not discuss it, because we think that by not discussing it we can avoid it—can prevent it from happening to our friends and family, to those whom we care about and to ourselves. We do not have these conversations often enough or engage in them deeply enough, particularly when a friend or family member is suffering from a terminal illness and approaching the end of their life. That is one of the reasons why palliative and end-of-life care is not as good as it could be, and why too many people are reaching the end of their lives in hospital rather than in their own homes, surrounded by their families.
There is no reason why we, as a society, cannot provide end-of-life care that provides full pain relief and soothes mental distress. That is why we have committed ourselves to providing free social care for those on the palliative care register, starting with those with the highest needs, so that no one will have to die in hospital for want of a social care package of support.
Time does not permit me to say much more; I have already exceeded my allocated time by a few seconds. Let me end by saying that this is a clear issue of conscience. Members on both sides of the debate have advanced strong and robust arguments. If we are to take one thing from the debate, it must be a commitment to improving the care received by those approaching the end of their lives and to giving them dignity in death.