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Anna Soubry is right: we must stop fudging issue of assisted dying

Compassion should win the argument

The late Tony Nicklinson who fought for the right to die with doctors' assistance. Photograph: Getty Images

The new health Minister Anna Soubry has articulated the view of many people, a clear majority according to opinion polls, who feel that the current law on assisted dying is out of date. 

As is well documented, over the last decade Britons have been travelling abroad to die. But, this is just one part of the problem. Dying Britons have also been ending their lives at home, sometimes with the assistance of loved ones, and evidence suggests that some doctors are illegally helping their patients to die. None of this occurs within a legal framework, agreed by Parliament, which allows healthcare professionals to openly discuss and support, if upfront safeguards are met, a dying patient’s request to die. 

Instead, we muddle along with a fudge. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), understandably reluctant to prosecute those who have helped a loved one to die, has set out factors for and against prosecution that effectively decriminalises compassionate amateur assistance. However, the assistance of a doctor or a nurse in a professional capacity is a specific factor in favour of prosecution. In fairness to the DPP his hands are largely tied by statute. Only Parliament can create a safeguarded process of assisted dying. Their failure to do so to date means that we have effectively outsourced assisted dying to family members and the Swiss. No wonder Anna Soubry described the law as “ridiculous and appalling”.  

Of course, there are valid concerns about changing the law. Some fear that it would put people under pressure, real or imagined, to die. But, the evidence from those countries that have legalised and regulated some form of assistance to die shows this fear to be misguided. In the US state of Oregon, where assisted dying was legalised in 1997, assisted dying works safely and effectively. Eligibility has never been extended beyond terminal illness, and numbers are low – assisted deaths have never amounted to more than 0.25 per cent of all deaths per year – and there is no evidence that potentially vulnerable groups (such as people with disabilities, or people who are over 85) are negatively affected.

In reality it is the current fudge that does not sufficiently protect people. Surely people would be better protected if the law thoroughly examined a person’s request to die when they are still alive. Our society is built on the premise of trusting competent adults to make decisions for themselves – such as the right to refuse treatment. To safeguard against undue influence we advocate informed decision making via access to relevant information. When it comes to assisted dying this is not achieved by turning a blind eye, but rather by allowing dying patients who wish to control the time and manner of their death the option of discussing their wish and their alternative choices with healthcare professionals. A process that would also allow healthcare professionals to assess diagnosis, prognosis, competence and whether there has been any undue influence.

Dignity in Dying in partnership with the All-Party Parliamentary Party on Choice at the End of Life is currently consulting on a draft assisted dying bill. The consultation closes on 20 November, and its aim is to create the most robust assisted dying bill possible that both enables choice at the end of life and offers better protection. We would ask anyone interested in this important issue to make their views known, whether supportive or opposed. A final report will be published next year at which point the former Justice Secretary Lord Falconer has committed to bringing a private members bill in the House of Lords.

Three countries in Europe and two States in the US already allow some form of assistance to die, and they look set to be followed shortly by France and Canada. It’s time Britain followed suit. Not only is it the compassionate thing to do, but it also provides the best means of protection for patients at the end of life when they are at their most vulnerable.

James Harris is the director of campaigns and communications at Dignity in Dying