The Government should change the law on assisted dying so stop people being “forced to choose between suicide, suffering or Switzerland”, MPs have been told.
The Health Committee’s first session of its assisted dying/assisted suicide inquiry heard from peers involved in work around the subject, including those who have attempted to introduce legislation into the House of Lords, and those opposing it.
Asked why she supports a change in the law, Baroness Meacher, a former social worker who is also chair of Dignity in Dying, told MPs: “I’ve spent my life, really, trying to listen to people’s needs, trying to reduce unbearable suffering and trying to protect vulnerable people. At the moment some people have to choose between suicide, suffering or Switzerland. Future generations are going to be appalled that we’ve taken so long to put this right.
“For many years, polls and surveys have shown that the huge majority of British people want an assisted dying law, 86 per cent of disabled people want this, people who are terminally ill and mentally competent are very clear. That is where the support lies, both for non-disabled people and disabled people. We know that choice at the end of life is of tremendous comfort to dying people.”
Assisted dying refers to the involvement of healthcare professionals in the provision of lethal drugs intended to end a patient’s life at their voluntary request, subject to eligibility criteria and safeguards. It includes healthcare professionals prescribing lethal drugs for the patient to self-administer, “physician-assisted suicide”, and healthcare professionals administering lethal drugs, “euthanasia”.
It is an offence in England and Wales to assist or encourage another person’s suicide under the Suicide Act 1961. Euthanasia is illegal across the UK under the Homicide Act 1957 and could be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter. In November 2021, Jersey became the first British parliament to approve assisted dying following a vote in the Channel Island’s States Assembly.
The Health Committee is also looking to what extent people in England and Wales have access to good palliative care, how that can be improved and whether improvement will negate some of the arguments for changing the law on assisted dying. The Committee will also investigate the countries where the law has already been changed to allow assisted dying. Chair Steve Brine said the Committee has received “tens and tens of thousands” of replies to its survey on the subject.
Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor who attempted to legalise euthanasia through a backbench Bill in 2013, told MPs he had been “personally involved in somebody dying” where towards the end of her life all that was left there was “an except increasing focus… on their inward suffering, where death was absolutely inevitable, and where it was absolutely clear that her assisting herself to die would have been unquestionably the best course, but that was not possible. So, the long period went on where there was quite bad suffering for her and bad suffering for those who loved her.”
Lord Falconer said the experience with the woman, a former health service employee, started his involvement with the campaign for a change in the law around assisted dying. He also said that although the woman had “high quality” end of life care, palliative care “should be better for everybody”.
He added: “There desperately needs to be an improvement in palliative care”, but that would not resolve the needs of some some people wanting to end their lives earlier.
Lord Falconer said there should be safeguards and that the assisted dying proposal is “would be the most safeguarded route to an earlier death, because it’s more safeguarded than withdrawing your own treatment or the hospital deciding you’re not gong to be treated”.
He described the current situation as “such a mess” as people are allowed to be helped to go abroad, typically to Switzerland, yet investigate the deceased’s loved ones when they return to the UK. “It is a hellish experience,” he told MPs. “The law itself recognises that and I think it’s time for change.”
Baroness Hollins, a professor of the psychiatry of learning disability at St George’s Hospital in London, said her work on “death education” found fear of talking about death “all the time”.
She told MPs: “We don’t have adequate death education in our society. It is driven by fear. This is one of the big reasons [for my involvement in the assisted dying campaign]. For me, I would like to see a much more accepting conversation about death, which is an acceptance that this is something that is going to happen to all of us. It’s a normal process and the more we talk about it, the more there is the possibility that people will get the help they need when they die, so that they can die in comfort with family and friends around them, without all the anxiety that goes around assisted suicide.”
Baroness Finlay said she has been teaching the subject around schools through a charity she set up called Books Beyond Words.
“That has been fabulous, to begin to talk to children who have been bereaved. A parent dies around every 20 minutes – every class will have at least one child who has lost a parent – and yet teachers are not comfortable talking about death. And we’ve been trying to introduce ways to do that,” she told MPs.