Skip to content

Why is an Assisted Dying Bill so difficult?

I’ve read a lot about the Assisted Dying Bill, being debated (at Second Reading) in parliament today with a record number of peers having asked for the right to speak. This morning’s papers have a number of articles, with arguments for (in the Independent, for example, and from the man bringing the bill himself, Lord Falconer, as well as some downright bizarre pieces like that from Melanie Reid, who seems to think it is a feminist issue) and against (again in the Independent, in addition to Justin Welby’s piece in last week’s Times, and Tanni Grey-Thompson’s interview on yesterday’s BBC News). Despite that, I am baffled by the way the bill is framed, which seems to me completely to miss the point.

In an effort to ensure that the Bill passes, it has been carefully worded to ensure that it is about helping those who are terminally ill and within six months of death to die earlier if they wish. There is a lot of talk about pain and suffering, and great emphasis placed on demonstrating that this is not euthanasia and not assisted suicide. It is about helping the terminally ill bring about a quicker end.

I guess the reality is that it is only possible to speak from a personal perspective on a subject such as this (although many seem convinced of their right to speak for others).  Mine is this: if I woke up one day with locked in syndrome, or I was suffering badly from dementia such that I was no longer in control of my mind; or from motor neurone such that I was no longer in control of any part of my body, I would rather be gone than here. The trouble is, in none of those situations am I necessarily terminally ill, or at least not within a predictable six months of death.

A friend of mine had a brother who went to bed one night right as rain, and the following morning was able to move nothing more than his eyelids. My grandfather suffered for years from Alzheimer’s – a fate which, given its partly genetic causes, may await me – bewildered and scared by everything, including all his visiting family, in a nursing home . My father-in-law heroically and stoically succumbed to motor neurone disease over a ten-year period, during much of which he lived a happy existence, but towards the end of which, life must have been torture for him. My next-door neighbour was buried last week after years of problems with dementia, latterly unable to do anything for himself in a manner which was no reflection of the man whose fascinating life was related at the funeral.

Everyone will have such stories. But where, in any of these, does the Assisted Dying Bill help? Pain was not a major factor in any of them, and time was never predictable. (Indeed, as Tony Nicklinson showed over a period of seven years, tragic situations can be prolonged indefinitely.) None of these people would have been able to invoke the new law (should it pass). Whether any or each would have wanted to, I cannot say. What I do know is that I can tell you right now that if any of these fates befalls me, I want out.

Why is it so difficult to legislate in such a way as to allow us to make choices when we are fit and healthy for situations where we are not, and then have those choices reviewed by a third party – a doctor? A judge, maybe – if the worst happens? Where would family pressure be possible, if I sign a document today that says that in the event that I lose control of, say, 90% of my mental or physical faculties, and am unable to express my views on what that means for me, I want my previous views taken into account and want someone to deal with it accordingly?

It seems to me that in every other area, we can make this choice. I can decide today who has Power of Attorney over every aspect of my life if I am catastrophically affected in some way, other than in this crucial area. Instead, we have a Bill which allows someone other than me to make a judgment, but only in specific circumstances which might not cover the situation that I myself find the most terrifying.

Everyone I have ever discussed this with shares similar views to mine: they know in what circumstances they would rather live, and when they would rather not. I can see the issues about people being pressured into decisions they might not want to take, but if the Assisted Dying Bill raises concerns about people who have already passed the point at which they can make clear choices, then surely it at least should address the clear-cut scenarios for those who have not? While that would leave a small number of tragedies for those currently in anguish, it would be no different from tomorrow finding a means of inoculating against a disease that some unlucky person catches today. Who would ever suggest that a future vaccine should be denied to those it would help?

My mothers’ cousin, finding herself in hospital and hearing doctors discussing how the rest of her life was set to pan out, reached up and pulled out all the cords that were connecting her to life-preserving equipment. I know I’d do the same, and so, I suspect, would many others. Given that, can it really be so difficult to frame a law which protects vulnerable people while allowing those of sound mind and body to remove their fear of this kind of terror?



Posted in Politics.

Tagged with , , , , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.