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view of many people, a clear majority according to opinion polls, who feel that the current law on assisted dying is out of date.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

Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496