Dying people deserve constructive debate on assisted dying, not scaremongering

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

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.

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