Health Secretary Matt Hancock moves to renew assisted dying debate By Georgia Gilholy
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock is reportedly moving toward renewing the parliamentary debate on assisted suicide legislation.
Last week a Department of Health spokesperson told The Daily Telegraph that the Minister had requested data from the Office for National Statistics on how many Britons had committed suicide “for medical reasons” so as to “inform Parliament’s debate on the issue.”
“The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that it is for Parliament to take forward debate on this issue,” he said, “given that this is an area of conscience on which the Government does not take a view.”
In September 2015, the first parliamentary vote on the issue since 1997 saw a resounding defeat for assisted suicide campaigners as the Assisted Dying Bill introduced by Labour MP Rob Marris failed to pass by 330 votes to 118. A similar bill in the Scottish Parliament was also rejected by 82 votes to 36 that same year. However, recent Westminster debates and concerted campaigning by the lobby group Dignity in Dying illustrate the considerable attempts of proponents of assisted suicide to secure legalisation in the lifetime of this Government.
Although Hancock abstained from the 2015 vote, last month he encouraged a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Choice at the End of Life by addressing how he had been “affected by speaking to Sir Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, who died of cancer” in April 2021, and who had campaigned for a change to the law on assisted suicide.
All forms of assisted suicide are currently illegal in the United Kingdom, and doctors found to be encouraging or assisting a suicide can be jailed for up to 14 years, under the Suicide Act 1961. Assisted suicide is currently legal in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Canada, several U.S states including Oregon and Washington, and the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia.
The Catholic Church opposes euthanasia, for the same reason the Church opposes abortion and other practices deliberately destructive of life. “All life is sacred,” the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales explain. “Instead,” the CBCEW say, “the Church believes all life should be cherished at all times,” and “endorses practical initiatives to help those in need including better palliative care for the terminally ill and support for mothers-to-be.”
In March 2021, the Canadian Government amended its law allowing assisted suicide and euthanasia, by removing the requirement in statute that death be “reasonably foreseeable” after it was successfully challenged in the Quebec Superior Court in 2019. Canada will now extend its assisted suicide and euthanasia provision to those without terminal illnesses, including people with disabilities.
Canada has been criticised by successive United Nations special rapporteurs on the rights of persons with disabilities for the impact of its ‘medical assistance in dying’ law on persons with disabilities. Belgium and the Netherlands have also faced international criticism for expanding their provision of assisted suicide and euthanasia to include children. In 2010 over 100 Belgian nurses admitted to researchers that they had euthanised patients “without request or consent.”
All forms of assisted suicide are permitted in Switzerland, “as long as the motives are not selfish”. About 25% of people in Switzerland who take advantage of assisted suicide do not have a terminal illness but are simply old or “tired of life.”
Current consensus among MPs is difficult to gauge, but polling released by My Death, My Decision in 2019 suggested that over 90% of the UK’s population believe assisted suicide should be legalised for those suffering from terminal illnesses. However, when asked if they “would be concerned that some people would feel pressurised into accepting help to take their own life so as not to be a burden on others,” if assisted suicide were legal, 51% of British respondents said yes, and only 25% disagreed.
Moreover, no doctors’ groups in the UK support changing the law, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians, the British Geriatric Society, and the Association for Palliative Medicine.
Last month, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice and urged him to set in motion a review into “the UK’s laws on assisted dying.” Former Conservative Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell MP, a committed campaigner for assisted suicide, co-chairs the APPG for Choice at the End of Life who want the Government to allow a free vote on the issue within this Parliament.
Mr Mitchell told the meeting that his group wanted to bring to Parliament a “tightly drawn” proposal to legalise assisted suicide for someone who wants “to be put to sleep” to avoid suffering. Two doctors would have to agree that the person is within six months of the end of their lives, and a High Court judge would have to agree that it was their wish to die.
Last month, Conservative MP Danny Kruger formed a new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Dying Well, which “promotes access to excellent care at end of life and stands against the legalisation of doctor-assisted suicide in the UK”.
He warned in a Telegraph article that “Once you have conceded, legally, the right of some people to request official help to kill themselves, that right quickly becomes universal.”
The MP also expressed his concerns about what he described as the societal “dystopia” that would result from such a change in the law, with people being pressured to end their lives.
“If you ‘may’ terminate your life because it is not worth living,” he said, “surely you ‘ought’ to do so? And if you ‘ought’ to do so, surely others should encourage you to do the right thing? And if you won’t, surely the state should compel you to do so?”
“If the option exists for the doctor to prescribe your death, what conversations follow?” he asked. “What whispers between family members, haunted by premonitions of agony for their loved one — or by the prospect of years of providing wearisome and expensive care? What thoughts would it place in the mind of the old person themselves?”
Wednesday evening of this week saw the inaugural meeting of the APPG for Dying Well, of which Kruger is Chair. Over fifty MPs and Peers were in attendance.
Professor Katherine E Sleeman, the Laing Galazka Chair in Palliative Care at King’s College London, voiced her concern over unequal access to palliative care in light of a projected increase in demand of around 25% for such care over the next two decades.
A testimonial was given by Kathleen Rogers, a former carer from Ireland, who was recently diagnosed with motor neurone disease. She explained why she opposes legislative change on assisted suicide, lamenting the idea that many people would feel “very selfish” for not ending their own lives if it were legal, and expressed her frustration at the fact that “people make assumptions that your life is not worth living.”
The group is planning to host a further meeting with Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and Matt Hancock in the coming weeks.
A Ballot Bill on Assisted Dying was this week allocated seventh place in line to be debated, and will be introduced to the House of Lords on May 26th. However it is not certain whether this Bill will reach the House of Commons.