The 12th September 2015 saw the debate and subsequent rejection of Labour MP Rob Marris’ Assisted Dying Bill. This Bill would have decriminalised assisting people to end their own life in a prescribed set of circumstances and if their life expectancy did not exceed six months. When I read that MPs voted with a majority of 112 against changing the law I was unsure of how I felt. I believe it is time for a change in the law, I just do not believe that Marris’ Bill was the change that is needed. The contents of the House of Commons debate did, however, highlight the discrepancy between the views of the British public and the decisions made by their elected representatives.
In March 2015 an opinion poll showed that 82% of the public supported Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, a Bill that is almost completely mirrored in Marris’. Earlier this year, Lord Falconer’s Bill succeed in the House of Lords, receiving a 2:1 majority from the Peers. Although it ran out of time before the end of parliamentary term, the same poll suggested that 47% of people “strongly supported” Falconer’s Bill whilst just 6% “strongly opposed” it. Granted, the most recent General Election demonstrates that opinion polls should not be heavily relied upon but here it seems that Parliament have almost completely disregarded public opinion.
It is worth setting the debate in context – assisted suicide is already happening, regardless of its current legal status. As of April 2015, 110 cases had been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions since 2009. Of those 110 cases, 70 were not proceeded with by the Crown Prosecution Service and 25 were dropped by the police. Out of all the cases that were prosecuted only one has been successful. In addition to these 110 cases in the UK, many travel abroad to end their lives. It was reported in August this year that one British person a fortnight travels to Dignitas in Switzerland to end their lives, with the British figure about to hit a total of 300.
The arguments put forward by the various MPs who spoke against the Bill in the Commons on 12th September included that it undermined the sanctity of life and that it would overturn the Hippocratic Oath. As with the mitochondrial DNA debate at the beginning of this year, the slippery slope argument was paraded once more. Various people argue that once we legalise assisted suicide in limited circumstances, it is only a matter of time before this leads to less acceptable forms of euthanasia. This neglects to take into account that law is always in flux. Parliament can change law if it is not working or if assisted dying did become a slippery slope. Harsher regulations can be imposed and additional requirements can be brought in. The argument is further undermined by the law in Oregon, where many do not take the medication prescribed to them but merely want an autonomous choice. The Oregon Hospice Association, who were initially against a change in the law, have since stated, “there is no evidence that assisted dying has undermined Oregon’s end of life care or harmed the interests of vulnerable people.”
Legalising assisted suicide is not about opening “Pandora’s box” or “emotionally blackmailing” the elderly, as was suggested by MPs in the debate. It is about returning autonomy to those who have had it removed by serious disease or illness. To those who have become completely dependent on others for even the simplest of tasks or are suffering to an unimaginable degree. It would not make the doctor who is there to provide care become the executioner, attempting to reduce public spending on healthcare.
Others argued that the elderly who feel like they were a burden on their families, would feel pressure to end their own lives. This particular argument places very little faith in both our doctors and our judiciary. Under Marris’ Bill, a High Court judge would have had to confirm that the person was of full capacity and had a voluntary, settled, and informed wish to end their life. This person would previously have had to have made a declaration to this effect and had the declaration signed by two doctors. While there may be a few doctors who might sign such declarations regardless, or judges who may confirm the wishes of the person without questioning, I believe that this would provide adequate protection in the vast majority of cases.
Where I believe the major flaw of the Bill lay was in the requirement for a life expectancy of six months or less. The notable cases in the United Kingdom have not been from people who have had a short life expectancy, but from people who have had long-term and seriously debilitating diseases. In the most recent court case it was Tony Nicklinson, who had a stroke in 2005 which left him with ‘locked-in’ syndrome: completely paralysed but with full brain function. Before that it was Debbie Purdy. She was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis in 2005 but did not die until 2014. Both died after refusing to eat.
Many have commented on the arguments in the debate that came from those whose relatives were told they had little time to live but who survived far longer than their life expectancy. The fact that these arguments are noteworthy and compelling highlights the flaw within Marris’ Bill. Six months is an arbitrary length of time that would make little difference in a large proportion of cases. It is not the length of time that you are going to live that should dictate whether you are eligible to die but the suffering you are going to endure. Motor neurone disease, for example, robs the sufferer of the ability to move muscles. Eventually you are unable to breathe and it often leads to a death by choking or asphyxiation. It has a life expectancy of up ten times the limit that Marris’ Bill proposed.
We live in a democracy, a system of government where our MPs are meant to be the representatives of the people who elected them. It appears that the vote on Friday contradicted all the evidence that assisted dying has widespread support, both with the public and with the House of Lords. While I disagree with the exact proposals in Marris’ Bill, many of the arguments against it were erroneous. Any legislation can be monitored or altered and the law in other jurisdictions suggests that the slippery slopes argument is in the large part a fallacy. In any event, cases which appear to be outside of the law can be referred to the CPS for investigation. We need to stop being haunted by the ghost of “Dr. Death” Harold Shipman and accept that voluntary assisted suicide happens. It is time that we figured out a way to effectively regulate it.