We can no longer put up with the status quo on assisted dying

Fears of a 'slippery slope' have so far been unfounded

 

Last month a Briton travelled to Dignitas. With one doing so every fortnight, there is a danger that these tragic events are becoming commonplace and even accepted. This cannot happen.

Parliament has an opportunity to change the law when the Assisted Dying Bill is debated on 11 September. It would mean that dying people could have the choice in their own country, and the law could protect people better than it can currently.

Bob Cole was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a particularly horrific form of lung cancer. Given three months to live he wanted to have control over the manner and timing of his death. He travelled to Dignitas in Zurich with his friends – sadly a journey he had also taken 18 months ago so his wife Ann could have an assisted death after suffering from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.

I can’t imagine what that journey must have been like, but I do know something about mesothelioma. Bob contracted this when working as a carpenter with asbestos in his teenage years; it lay dormant for many years. It is a disease that is prevalent among many firefighters and I worked alongside people for twenty years who eventually succumbed to the same disease.

Currently one Briton a fortnight is travelling to Dignitas for an assisted death, while over 300 terminally ill people are taking their own lives back home every year. Anyone who assists a loved one to die (including simply accompanying someone abroad) can face up to 14 years in prison. This is why terminally ill people try and end their lives alone, not wanting to risk prosecution for their family or friends.

As a representative of my constituency I also have a duty to protect people. When considering any change in the law it is of the utmost importance that the most stringent of safeguards are put in place. The Assisted Dying Bill includes such safeguards, as it requires two doctors, as well as a Family Court Judge, to assess someone’s diagnosis, prognosis and capacity.

It would only be for terminally ill, mentally competent people who have a prognosis of six months or less. It would also protect people better than the current law, which turns a blind eye not only to people’s suffering, but to the act itself, only taking notice when the person has died. The police then have to investigate post-death, an almost impossible task.

It cannot be emphasised enough that the current law is not working. We are out of step with the overwhelming majority of the public, the Courts who have issued a last warning to parliament to sort out this mess, and other jurisdictions.

Oregon has had an assisted dying law since 1997 and has been working safely; the Oregon Hospice Association has stated that there has been no negative effect on palliative care. There has also been no ‘slippery slope’ with no extension in criteria beyond terminal illness.

The last time the House of Commons debated assisted dying was in 1997 when I was new to parliament. Twenty years later and the House of Lords have again grasped this difficult issue, recognising there is a problem and thinking of the right law for Britain.

We cannot fail to realise the scale of the problem, and we can no longer put up with the status quo which denies dying people choice and control over their own death.

Jim Fitzpatrick is the MP for Poplar and Limehouse.

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