Thursday, 4 July 2019

To whom does our life belong? I believe that the law on assisted dying needs to change.

Later today, the House of Commons will debate assisted dying. Unfortunately, I am unable to attend due to long-standing commitments in Hexham.

However - I am clear that we need to change the law in favour of assisted dying. It is right that this is an unwhipped free vote. Many MP colleagues have legitimate reasons to oppose, and it is a matter that will divide the House of Commons. If you want to know my views on free vote issues, from gay marriage to stem cell research click here.

Many people will remember Geraldine McClelland - the former BBC TV producer and a founding member of Newcastle's Live theatre. After an unsuccessful battle with cancer, Geraldine took her life at Dignitas in Switzerland. Before her death, she made the case for change by saying: “I am not sad that I will die today. I am angry that I can't die in the country I was born in, in my own home."

As her good friend Nick Ross, the former BBC 'Crimewatch' presenter said “Gerry had to abandon her home and be driven across Europe…to end her life in a light commercial estate in an impersonal Swiss suburb.”
The tragedy is that we effectively now have one law for the rich, and one for the poor. It cannot be right that those who need our support most, at the end of their lives, live in fear and uncertainty of how or where their last moments will be, and whether their loved ones will face prosecution after they are gone.

It seems to me manifestly wrong that individual members of the public do not have the choice and are prevented by law from doing something in this country that they are able to go and do legally at Dignitas in Switzerland. How can it be fair that wealth determines dignity in death? Where those rich enough are afforded a death in a manner they choose and yet those who are too poor to escape are locked in the system and have no rights over the ending of their own life?

Fundamentally, the heart of this debate centres on one question: to whom does a person's life belong. I suggest that a person's life belongs to the individual themselves. It should be for those who are not as lucky as I was to make their choices about how they live, and if required, how they end their own lives. This is a transfer of power from the state to the individual, who is then free to choose, subject to very strict safeguards.

Every patient has the right to life, but they also have the right to personal autonomy and dignity. When a patient’s condition has no cure, and death is a certainty, there must be a point where the individual has a right to end their own suffering.

One of the central arguments against assisted dying is that it would lead to a slippery slope.

However, assisted dying will not lead to more deaths, but to less suffering. Safeguards are essential and nobody disagrees with that. Those that argue safeguards do not work, or that it is not possible, should look to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. In place for 17 years, it enables someone who is terminally ill to request the option of an assisted death. There has been no evidence of abuse since its inception. Further to that, around 40% of dying people who meet the strict safeguards to obtain life-ending medication never use it, simply taking comfort from having the option.

This topic is personal to me. During the Budget debate in 2011, I collapsed in the Central Lobby of the House of Commons. It was not George Osborne's Budget that made me ill, but a tumour the size of a small fist in the left part of my brain. I was rushed to St Thomas's hospital in central London where an A&E doctor advised me that I required a craniotomy to remove the meningioma from my brain.

It was an extremely frighting experience. I was advised to the likelihood of death, paralysis, loss of speech, and so much more. I was one of the lucky ones who survived with few scars. However, many of my fellow patients who I met during my treatment were not so lucky. To deny a dignified death to those who are suffering during the last weeks of their life seems manifestly unfair to me.

I have no doubt that eventually the law will change in the UK - as it is changing elsewhere. I vividly remember walking through the voting lobby in the House of Commons with Ed Miliband, discussing how it requires leaders of medics, churches and our communities to see things differently.

Watch my speech from the House of Commons in 2012

I come back to a simple issue which, I suggest, is at the heart of the entire debate over assisted dying: to whom does a person’s life belong? I suggest that a person’s life belongs to the individual themselves. It is for those who are not as lucky as I was to make their choices about how they live their lives. That somebody cannot take those choices does not mean that MP's in Parliament should deny them of any choice. It upsets me tremendously that the state prescribes that it knows best. It cannot be right that individual members of the public are prevented from doing something in this country that they are able to go and do at Dignitas in Switzerland, where they can die in the manner of their choosing.

UPDATE: The debate in the House of Commons has now taken place. You can read a transcript of everything that was spoken here, and watch the debate in here.