THE Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, the Church of England’s lead bishop on health care, said that he was “heartened” that the House of Commons had opposed assisted suicide.
MPs last week voted against legalising assisted suicide in England and Wales by 330 to 118. The Private Member’s Bill tabled by the Labour MP Rob Marris was rejected by the Commons last Friday afternoon, after several hours of debate.
The Bill, which would have enabled any adult in England and Wales who was given less than six months to live to ask doctors for a lethal dose to end their life, had been strongly criticised by religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a series of newspaper articles earlier that week (News, 11 September).
“We believe that the proposals contained in the Assisted Dying Bill would have exposed already vulnerable people to increased risk,” Bishop Newcome said. “The vote in the House of Commons sends a strong signal that the right approach towards supporting the terminally ill is to offer compassion and support through better palliative care. We believe that all of us need to redouble our efforts on that front.”
In an emotionally charged debate, MPs from all parties argued over the proposed law. Mr Marris opened by arguing that the current law, which makes it an offence to assist a suicide, but is rarely used against relatives of the terminally ill, was leading to amateur assisted suicides, and forcing people to apply to Dignitas, the Swiss clinic that offers assisted suicide.
“Social attitudes have changed in the last 50 years,” Mr Marris said. “The law has not got the balance right between protection and choice. I would find it comforting [if dying of a terminal illness] to have the option of choosing a dignified and peaceful death at a time and place, and in a manner of my choosing, at my own hand.”
He said that his Bill, which required two doctors and a High Court judge to approve any request for lethal drugs, had the necessary safeguards to protect the vulnerable. “Some patients’ needs cannot be met through palliative care. They remain suffering. This House should not be holding terminally ill people hostage.
“If the exercise of a choice does not harm others, in a free society we should allow that choice.”
Some MPs spoke in support of the Bill, including the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, who is now a Labour MP. He was in charge of the Crown Prosecution Service when it released guidance that suggested that the Crown would not prosecute relatives or friends who helped a terminally ill person to end his or her life.
“There was overwhelming support for the interim guidelines that I had published,” he told the Commons. “The principles of compassionate assistance to those who want to end their lives — yes; pressurising the vulnerable — no.”
He said that he had now changed his mind, however, and believed that doctors and other medical professionals, who were not covered by his guidelines, should also be able to assist someone to kill themselves.
“We’ve arrived at a position where compassionate assistance from nearest and dearest is accepted, but professional assistance is not, unless you have the means to get to Dignitas. That is an injustice.”
A Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, said that he backed the Bill because it maximised the freedom of individuals to choose how and when they died. “I understand the faith lobby have principled objections to this, but I am appalled that they would seek to maintain legislation which inhibits my choice,” he said.
The Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick said that he supported it for personal reasons. In his 23 years as a firefighter, he had encountered asbestos, and feared developing cancer from exposure to the substance. “I have seen the terminal stages of mesothelioma. It’s damned ugly. If that’s what lies in store for me, I want to control my own exit.”
But many others argued against changing the law. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, the Tory MP Caroline Spelman, said that it would undermine Britain’s long-held Christian belief in the sanctity of life.
“Life is a gift from God in all it entails, including pain and suffering, and it is not for us to bring it to an end,” she said. Echoing Archbishop Welby, she said that the right to die could easily become a duty to die, and the elderly and vulnerable could come under pressure to choose assisted suicide and not be a burden on their family or the NHS.
Mr Marris’s Bill would not just “legitimise suicide: it would promote it”, she warned.
Sarah Woolaston, a Tory MP and former GP, also spoke against the Bill. “We have to consider as a House the harms as well as the benefits; the impact on wider society,” she said. “The duties of a doctor should be to improve the quality at the end of life, not to shorten it. Let’s bring forward better care-planning and access to specialist palliative care.”
Another Tory, Fiona Bruce, gave an impassioned speech against the Bill, saying that it was so open to abuse that it would be laughable if it were not such a serious topic. “We are here to protect the most vulnerable in our society, not to legislate to kill them. This Bill is not merely flawed: it is legally and ethically totally unacceptable.”
As MPs debated, protesters from both pro- and anti-assisted dying groups demonstrated outside Parliament. Activists from the group Not Dead Yet held up placards reading “Ditch the Death Bill”, inches from other signs demanding “Give me choice over my death”.
After several hours of discussion, MPs voted in a free vote against sending the Bill on to committee stage. Mr Marris’s Bill was a replica of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, which was introduced into the House of Lords in the last Parliament, but ran out of time.
Care Not Killing, a group that campaigns against assisted suicide, welcomed the result. Its director, Peter Saunders, said: “We welcome this unequivocal rejection of this dangerous piece of legislation by the House of Commons.
“We hope Parliament will now turn its attention to the real issues facing our country, of ensuring that everybody can access the very best care, regardless of whether they are disabled or terminally ill, and that we fund this adequately.”
The Christian advocacy group CARE also praised the decision of MPs. Its chief executive, Nola Leach, said: “The legalisation of assisted suicide would have been a fundamental departure from our nation’s compassionate heritage, and a dangerous mistake to make.”