Legalising assisted dying means we could determine when to end our life if we think its quality is too diminished.
At Final Fling, we’re up for that. A little change in the law could go a long way to easing suffering.
First things first; a bit of clarity on terminology. These are the definitions according to campaigning body Dignity in Dying:
- Assisted dying (legalised and regulated in the US States of Oregon and Washington) only applies to terminally ill, mentally competent adults and requires the dying patient, after meeting strict legal safeguards, to self administer life-ending medication. This is the term used in the UK for the Bill under discussion.
- Assisted suicide (permitted in Switzerland) allows assistance to die to chronically ill and disabled people who are not dying. This is the term used for the Bill in Scotland.
- Voluntary euthanasia (permitted in the Netherlands and Belgium) allows a doctor to administer the medication directly to the patient.
- Euthanasia is a term used to describe life ending medication administered by a third party, perhaps without the consent of the patient.
This is a fast changing space with Margo Macdonald’s Assisted Suicide Bill voted down by the Scottish Parliament in May 2015 (ironically, the week after Dying Matters Awareness Week. Lord Falconer’s private member’s bill in the UK has been put before government for consideration.
The House of Lords debated Lord Falconer’s Bill for 10 hours when it was presented. See the BBC report of his submission.
The back story
This excellent publication commissioned by campaigning organisation, Dignity in Dying: A Matter of Facts offers very measured views on this challenging issue:
Think-tank Demos published a report in 2012 on the case for change in end of life legislation. The investigation was carried out under the auspices of the Commission on Assisted Dying, set up the previous year to consider whether the legal and policy approach to assisted dying in England and Wales was fit for purpose.
This report found in favour of assisted dying within a strict set of rules. The option to end life would only be open to people over 18 who are of sound mind, terminally ill, judged as having less than 12 months to live and who make a voluntary choice to end their life. The person would be independently assessed by two doctors. See BBC news at the time. That’s an advance but not much use to someone with MS like Debbie Purdy, campaigner.
Following hot on the heels of the Commission’s findings, Independent MSP Margo MacDonald announced that she was revisiting her End of Life Assistance Bill attempting to give terminally ill people in Scotland the right to choose when to die. The Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament by Margo Macdonald MSP on 13 November 2013. The next stage in the parliamentary process is for the bill to be allocated to a committee, which will then publish a timetable for their scrutiny of the bill. The committee will then call for written evidence.
Sadly Margo died in April 2014.
What are the issues?
The problem is, for someone like Debbie Purdy, not only can she not choose to die here, she can’t physically get herself to Switzerland to end her life. She’d need her partner Omar to help. And while prosecution for helping a partner in this way may be unlikely, there are no safeguards. The question of when cases of assisted suicide should be prosecuted is at the discretion of one individual; the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP). In March 2012, MPs debated the DPP’s Guidelines on Assisted Suicide and agreed s/he should be able to show compassion when hearing cases of individuals supporting loved ones who decide to end their own lives.
Despite government resistance up till now, there is a groundswell of opinion that may turn the tide. The British Medical Association decided to drop its opposition to euthanasia. A public poll carried out in May 2011 found that 60 per cent of people in the UK want only comfort care at the end of their lives, and although 98% of us wanting our wishes honoured at the end of life, only 3% of people have made end of life preferences known. So, make your wishes known and start an Advance Decision now on this site – it’s easy to update if you change your mind about any aspects of your care or treatment should anything happen to you.
The back story
Many people in the UK who face life limiting illnesses find their conditions so diminishing that they would like to have the option to end their life at a time of their choosing. Assisted dying is legal in Belgium and Switzerland but illegal in the UK, so at the moment, people who wish to end their life have to travel abroad. “Going to Switzerland” has become shorthand for wanting control, not wanting to lead a life of poor quality, maintained by medical intervention.
In the UK, attempts have been made for some time to clear up woolly legislation and to simplify the law. Diane Pretty, who had motor neurone disease and was no longer able to take her own life wanted an assisted death. She took her battle to the European Courts but failed. She died in 2002. Debbie Purdy who has MS, took up the battle and in September 2009 the Government announced that the decision to prosecute someone (such as Debbie’s husband) for assisting a death would be dependent on the patient’s illness, and that prosecutors would be advised to use their discretion. In 2006 the Lords voted down a bill and the Scottish Parliament voted down Margo MacDonald’s first End of Life Bill in December 2010. Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from Locked-In-Syndrome battled in vein to have the right to end his life. He died in August 2012 a week after he lost his High Court case.
The Oregon experience
Assisted dying is legal in some parts of the world… like Oregon in the US. After 15 years, the numbers give reassurance that establishing the legal right doesn’t open floodgates. For around 10,000 people considering this route, only 1,000 will consult their doctors, only 100 will get a lethal prescription and only 75 opt to take it. We still have choice and control.
Our own poll showed 90% of Final Flingers in favour of having the right to choose.