Norman Lamb, the Lib Dem Care Minister, has stated that he has ‘changed his mind’ and now supports new legislation on assisted dying. This refers to a bill introduced by Lord Falconer that is set to be debated in the House of Lords. The new law will seek to change existing rules by allowing terminally ill patients (specifically, those with less than 6 months to live) to request a lethal dose of medication, administered by a doctor. Mr Lamb’s declaration comes after 27 leading doctors wrote to peers urging support for Lord Falconer’s bill. Lord Avebury, a former Liberal MP for Orpington diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer, has also come out in strong support of the legislation. David Cameron, however, has stated that he is ‘not convinced’ by the assisted dying bill.
Inevitably religious considerations have entered this debate. Writing in the Telegraph, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis argues that life is ‘a gift from God and not ours to cut short’ (as well as making a grossly inappropriate reference to the ‘Final Solution’ in his first paragraph). In an increasingly secular Britain, it is refreshing to see that people are still more than ready to cite personal religious beliefs as sufficient justification for the continued suffering of other members of society. Sentiment in the Church of England is divided with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in favour of a change but others staunchly opposed.
Despite ardent opposition to comprehensive legislation dealing with assisted dying, one thing is certain; the current situation needs to change. Under existing rules, primarily the 1961 Suicide Act, an individual can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison for assisting in the suicide or attempted suicide of another. However, the extent to which this law is implemented as it pertains to assisting the suicide of terminally ill patients is patchy at best. Each case is subject to review as to whether it is in the public interest to prosecute, which is an exceptionally vague condition.
In many cases even if legal proceedings are initiated (such as that of the assisted suicide of Lynn Gilderdale in 2008) juries will quickly reach a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict. If nothing else, this evidences that there is a level of public support for assisted dying in specific instances. It is this legal ambiguity that has led approximately 180 British citizens to travel to Dignitas, the Zurich-bases assisted dying clinic, to end their lives. So far no-one has been prosecuted for assisting in the suicide of those individuals.
Clearly this damaging legal grey area needs to be rectified. As it currently stands, the law on assisted suicide places terminally ill patients along with their friends and family under a great deal of stress and anguish; torn between wanting to end the intense, unending and seemingly needless suffering of a loved one and fearing harsh legal retribution for doing so. Surely as a modern society we cannot place these individuals in such a situation that out of sheer desperation they choose the profoundly undignified end of paying £3,200 to ingest pentobarbital in a tower block in Zurich?
Nevertheless, this is an incredibly complex issue. The debate regarding assisted dying is one of those in which the nation attempts to make a profound moral judgement, the consequences of which will only ever be directly relevant to a tiny minority of the populace. At the same time any one of Britain’s 63 million people may be diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness, be the victim of an accident that puts them under the burden of constant physical and mental suffering, or see that terrible fate befall a loved one. None of us can possibly contemplate such a situation until it becomes an inescapable personal reality.
There are other, more practical issues. Assisted dying undertaken through the NHS is a difficulty as a wholly taxpayer funded body will be undertaking actions that many will strongly object to. There will inevitably be controversies regarding whether someone was indeed terminally ill or whether relatives in fact benefitted materially from an assisted death. Practicality, however, should not stand in the way of rectifying a legal situation that is denying a number of our population not only the right to die with dignity as they choose but also sovereignty over their own person once they lose the physical ability to take their own life.