Dying people deserve constructive debate on assisted dying, not scaremongering

It's time to bust some myths about the Assisted Dying Bill.

Lord Falconer ncrj

It’s time to bust some myths about the Assisted Dying Bill

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will be debated on the 18 July and would give terminally ill, mentally competent people the right to choose the manner and timing of their own deaths.

Last month the Supreme Court gave a timely warning to Parliament that it must act, otherwise it could well be left up to the courts to sort out the UK law which they found may be incompatible with Human Rights law.

It is clear that Parliament needs to address this issue and can’t continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering that dying people in this country are facing.

Kevin Davis, who was suffering with terminal renal cancer, was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs after he tried to end his life alone for fear that his loved ones could be prosecuted for assisting him.

Steve Riley Snelling’s wife Tracy’s final days with stomach cancer were horrific. Even the nurses attending her admitted that sometimes palliative care cannot help.

Peter Williams, who had PSP, travelled to Dignitas to take control of his death – his family insists he died much earlier than he would have if the option of an assisted death was available to him at home.

It would take a very hard person to look any of these dying people in the eye and tell them that they don’t deserve a better death.

Unfortunately opponents of the Assisted Dying Bill prefer to argue against a Bill they have constructed, rather than the one that is before Parliament. They argue against a law which extends far further than Lord Falconer’s Bill, and beyond anything I would ever support.

Melanie Phillips in a Times article today ludicrously posited that supporting the Bill would be the equivalent of pushing a disabled person off Beachy Head.

There is a clear difference between a person who is suicidal and needs help and support and someone who is dying and wants to control their inevitable and imminent death. Under the Assisted Dying Bill a person must have a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less, and be mentally competent, both of which would be evaluated by two independent doctors.

When opponents ignore the facts (disability is not even mentioned in the Bill) they reach a logical fallacy – the slippery slope.

We can refute the slippery slope by looking at the evidence; Oregon, Washington and Vermont in the United States for example.

In Oregon the Death with Dignity Act has been working for over 17 years and there has never been any extension, nor calls for extension, in its criteria beyond terminal illness.

There also hasn’t been a compulsion for people to rush towards choosing an assisted death as Charles Moore insinuated this weekend in the Telegraph (“If ‘dying with dignity’ is legalised, soon it will be expected”).

In Oregon the numbers of people who have had an assisted death has never increased above 0.2 per cent of yearly deaths. 1 in 50 Oregonians discuss the possibility of an assisted death, while 1 in 500 will ultimately take life-ending medication.*

Last week the BMJ published an editorial in support of the Bill, which signalled an end to the falsehood that the entire medical profession did not want a change in the law. The chair of the BMA (who are still opposed) admitted there are “strongly held views within the medical profession on both sides of this complex and emotive issue”.

In response to the BMJ, Dr Maureen Baker of the Royal College of GPs said: “good palliative and terminal care does not require assisted dying”.

Even Baroness Finlay, a known opponent, said that palliative care was not a “blanket panacea”.

If this and Steve Riley Snelling’s account are not enough, then we only need to look back at Oregon where the Oregon Hospice Association, who were opposed to assisted dying before the law change, found “no evidence that assisted dying has undermined Oregon’s end of life care or harmed the interests of vulnerable people”.

Concerning support from areas of society, the first survey to directly ask people with disabilities about assisted dying found 79 per cent supported the proposals while another poll found 78 per cent of those who attended a place of worship once a month supported.

In the face of this evidence, and the fact that between 75-80 per cent of the British public support assisted dying, it is imperative that Peers seize the opportunity next Friday to create a safeguarded system to allow greater choice and protect vulnerable people now, rather than turn a blind eye and let individual court judges decide in the future.

Mickey Charouneau works for Dignity in Dying

* Citation for Oregon Hospice Association – Jackson A, Oregon Hospice Association. The reality of assisted dying in Oregon. All Party Parliamentary Group on Compassion in Dying. House of Lords, 2006.

6 Responses to “Dying people deserve constructive debate on assisted dying, not scaremongering”

  1. Mason Dixon, Autistic

    Who exactly are you trying to convince with talking-points we’ve heard before? Hopefully LFF will invite someone from Not Dead Yet to respond to this.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    I’m not convinced the safeguards are quite strong enough, as things stand, but I understand those points will be raised.

    Trying to paint everyone concerned with the issue as an extremist does your cause no favours.

    (Also, please stop abusing polling figures)

  3. Levinas

    Extremely worrying times. The LCP was designed to provide palliative, end of life care to a specific set of patients, namely those with terminal cancer for whom there was no hope of recovery and a rather nasty ending. As such it represents ‘best practice’, for those patients. Only those patients. Fast forward a few years and its now routinely used, across the UK hospitals to end the lives of patients with no cancer. They still call it ‘best practice’, it’s anything but. Speaking as someone whose grandmother was fast tracked to death via this procedure, it is legally sanctioned euthanasia, at best, and murderous when applied without consent nor patient knowledge, or where as in the case of my grandmother, the vulnerable are brow beaten into agreement without any support from family or advocates. Don’t tell me this ‘assisted dying’ will only apply to those we currently agree it would be ‘best practice’ to apply it to, on past experience it will not.

  4. Kay

    I think the language glosses over the implications for the medical profession and society, so if we are going to have a constructive debate, let’s experiment with some different, clearer and less comfortable term.

    For instance, we could frame a debate around “the right to demand death by lethal injection” rather than the (more cosy and acceptable) “right to die”. Presumably, patients seeking to end to their painful lives are unable to administer lethal drugs themselves, so the term “assisted dying” would not be relevant in these cases – we would need to talk about “the circumstances in which a lethal injection would be administered by an agent of the state”. We are grown up enough to call it what it is (killing) and would banish from the debate any euphemisms like “putting the patient to sleep”. .

    Although a place like Dignitas gives me the shudders (and who is to know whether healthy people have felt the need for its services), it takes the onus off the medical profession and on to the individual. The person has to be very determined to kill themselves – they must plan, they must travel, they must make arrangements for the transport of their remains and it is their decision whether or not they take the cocktail of drugs on their bedside cabinet. It’s not a whim or a response to immediate pain, but an individual’s plan. Now that’s what I call assisted suicide rather than assisted dying, but it is miles away from state intervention and doctors killing off of the terminally ill.

  5. swatnan

    The Courts will have to do it anyway so why not do it now. Politicians will not touch this subject in case it damages them electorally.

  6. Jodi

    It’s disingenuous to suggest opponents are muddying the waters, rather than responding to conflation that is already going on. I have heard so many supporters of the bill cite Tony Nicklinson’s case as a reason, this is one high profile example: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/jan/17/julie-esmondhalgh-assisted-suicide-coronation-street-hayley-cropper but it’s very widespread, both in public discussion and what I hear personally from friends. Then there’s the fact that the arguments used do not naturally limit themselves only to the terminally ill: if it’s about choice and personal autonomy and a basic right to choose how to end your own life, why would that only be available to a certain group of people? If it’s about ending suffering, why should it not be available to people with no end to their suffering in sight? Probably the most frequent argument is a simple comparison to the way we treat our pets, and even if you accept the highly dubious assumption that they are only ever euthanised out of compassion, it happens when they have injuries or illnesses they will not recover from, not just when they are dying. Plenty of people who support the bill are very open about their wish to see access expanded beyond terminally people in future, and many about the fact that they see this as a step towards increasing acceptance of that. To brush all this off with “The slippery slope is a logical fallacy!” and pretend that anyone with concerns is cooking up connections out of nowhere for some nefarious reason doesn’t seem much like a constructive debate to me.

    And I agree with the previous commenter about the language obscuring honest discussion. First there are the euphemisms designed to manipulate opinion – who could object to death with dignity? – and then we reach the point where the BBC describes the euthanasia of someone with no physical illness as them being “helped to die” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24373107 .

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