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

Compassion should win the argument

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view of many people, a clear majority according to opinion polls, who feel that the current law on assisted dying is out of date.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

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

After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.