Big Debate: Was Parliament right to reject the Assisted Dying Bill?

Protesters (right) outside the Houses of Parliament in London as MPs debated and voted on the Assist

Protesters (right) outside the Houses of Parliament in London as MPs debated and voted on the Assisted Dying Bill Picture: PA/Jonathan Brady - Credit: PA WIRE

This week we ask if Parliament was right to reject proposed legislation to make it legal for the terminally ill to be assisted in ending their own lives.

Sarah Wootton and Stephen Timms

Sarah Wootton and Stephen Timms - Credit: Archant

On Friday, September 11, MPs decisively rejected the Assisted Dying Bill by 330 votes to 118. The bill would have allowed people with six months to live the option of being prescribed a lethal dose of drugs, providing two doctors and a High Court judge approved. But as Lyn Brown MP showed during a passionate speech in Parliament, the prospect of euthanasia is deemed too dangerous by many lawmakers, despite campaigners’ lobbying. So we asked: Was Parliament right to reject the Assisted Dying Bill?

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Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying

Parliament has turned a blind eye to people’s suffering by rejecting the Assisted Dying Bill. The Bill would have allowed terminally ill, mentally competent people to have assistance to die under strict safeguards.

For now the current situation will continue. Those who can afford to will go to Dignitas. One Briton a fortnight currently makes this journey at great emotional and financial cost. A family member or friend who accompanies someone is technically assisting their death so can face up to 14 years in prison. More than 300 terminally ill people are taking their own lives at home, usually alone and in dangerous ways to avoid this risk of prosecution, every year.

Ultimately dying people should have their wishes respected and be allowed to control the manner and timing of their own death.

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The Assisted Dying Bill would have put rigorous safeguards in place, not only to give dying people choice, but also to better protect them. Strong and robust safeguards before someone ends their life is far better than the current situation, in which people are doing so under the radar, and any investigations into prognosis, motive and mental competency can only happen after the person has already died – an almost impossible task.

People in other parts of the world already have the right to control their own death. In the United States, Oregon legalised assisted dying 20 years ago and there has been no evidence of abuse. A small but significant number of people ultimately go on to end their own lives while the majority simply have the peace of mind to know it is an option in the last few weeks or months of their life. A number of states have since followed Oregon’s success, while California passed a Bill the day before the UK debate.

The law as it stands clearly does not command the support of the public. Dying people deserve choice at the end of life.

Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham

On 11 September, Parliament debated Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying Bill. It would have legalised terminally ill people taking their own lives if expected to die within six months.

Many MPs listened exceptionally carefully to the arguments – and didn’t decide until the last minute how to vote. I opposed the Bill. Rob Marris was well intentioned in tabling it, but I am worried about a major problem with any legislation along these lines. However strong the safeguards, there would be people who ended their lives because they didn’t want to be a burden to others, not because they wanted to die. The law should not put anyone in that position.

Lyn Brown made one of the best speeches. She explained that her mother had been struck by cancer, and died within a few months.

If state-assisted suicide had been available, she “would have tormented herself during her last months with the question of when she would ask for that button to be pressed. “She would have worried about the stresses that my sister and I would have endured, she would have worried about the weight of her care being shouldered by the nurses and the doctors, and she would have been anxious that folk would think that she was consuming too many resources, selfishly staying alive, costing money when she could and should just die.”

Lyn is surely right. We should not force sick, elderly people to face that torment. There would also be cases of people pressed to end their lives so that their relatives could enjoy an inheritance from them – a truly appalling prospect.

The Bill was defeated by 330 votes to 118, an even heavier defeat than when this idea was last debated, almost 20 years ago. It is unlikely to be considered again in this Parliament.