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On why assisted dying/suicide is a human rights and liberal issue the Lib Dems should take up…

This is back in the news as Noel Conway is challenging the 1961 Suicide Act that by stopping his right to die in a dignified manner breeches his human rights. It is an extremely emotive issue for many. MPs debated it just two years ago and the eight Lib Dem Members of Parliament split three ways with three voting for the bill, three against and two sat on the fence.

Back then it was Alistair Carmichael, John Pugh and Norman Lamb who supported the bill. The latter even commenting during the debate that he had changed his mind in recent years. The paragraph that sticks out is below:

I have changed my mind on this issue. I used to oppose change, but I am now very clear in my mind that reform is necessary. We are all shaped by the conversations we have and by our own personal experiences, sometimes within our own families. Talking to people who are terminally ill has forced me to think about the principles at stake and led me to change my mind. I came to this view through one man in particular, Douglas Harding, who, for six years, has lived with terminal cancer, and is now very close to the end. When I hear him argue the case to me about his right to decide when to end his life as he faces the closing stages of a terminal illness, I find it impossible to reject that right. When I ask myself what I would want in those circumstances whether I would want that right, I am very clear in my mind that I would. I do not know whether I would exercise it, but I would absolutely want it for myself. How can I then deny it to others?

It is one of those rare occasions when I am on the opposite side of the aisle to Nick Clegg who voted against the bill. At Conference in 2014 he found that he was in the minority within the party during a Q&A session. A show of hands showed that the majority of Lib Dem members in that room believed that a change in the law was necessary. “I am personally quite sceptical about the ability to capture what is a very, very delicate decision about when you endorse, under the law, the taking of someone’s life” said the then Deputy Minister at the time.

For me though I don’t see it as a tough decision and I think Norman Lamb hit the nail on the head. It is all about rights and if someone is in a position where they want to end their own life but need help, they should have that opportunity. This isn’t about state sanctioned murder but about not criminalising doctors or loved ones for bringing an end to pain.

I have it on record with my mum and my partner that should I ever be in a position where I have zero quality of life, I do not want to live. This is of course a very narrow interpretation that only takes into account two scenarios where I wouldn’t be able to clearly communicate my wishes, firstly locked in syndrome, which would be hell on Earth in my opinion and the other is where I lose so many of my faculties that I do not know who I am or who anyone is around me. For me that isn’t life but existing and again for me, that isn’t life.

This is of course just one persons opinion – mine – but shouldn’t I be able to control whether or not I live or die in such a scenario? If I want the freedom to end my life if I didn’t think it was worth living then how could I ever have the position where I don’t think another person has that same right?

The issue of coercion is a real one and I can fully see that is a potential problem to making this law. If assisted dying/suicide was decriminalised then scrupulous people could get vulnerable people to agree to end their life for a variety of reasons from freeing them of a burden to financial gain. This is where the whole issue hits the rocks as many will argue that if it could be used by people against the wishes of the person then it should be avoided at all costs. This is why safety checks should be put in place and that is plausible albeit difficult.

As liberals we should fight for individual choice in life and in this instance death. I find it hard to constitute that people couldn’t comprehend of a scenario where they see themselves diagnosed with a terminal illness, which is only only to get worse, more painful for them and more painful for their loved ones watching them in pain and slipping away and not want to end the pain for all. For you see dying slowly and painfully whilst watching your loved ones go through this with you must be nearly as bad (or even more so) than going through it yourself.

I’ve always believed in individual freedom and I think assisted dying/suicide comes under that umbrella. I would love the Liberal Democrats to look into this once more. In 2004 at Spring Conference the party promised to, ‘introduce legislation that would legalise assisted dying for patients with a terminal or severe, incurable and progressive physical illness‘ but nothing happened. In 2012 a motion brought by Chris Davies MEP at Party Conference was passed which reaffirmed our support for a change in the law on assisted dying. Still nothing has happened.

This is an issue of human rights and liberalism. One I think the party should seriously take up and not just pay lip service to…

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  1. Huw Jones Huw Jones

    Neil, you put up an attractive argument, which I think fails on several grounds.

    1)The right to live or die, is not one that we have. People are born without giving consent, and most people die (either through accident or old age) without giving consent, though I will concede that sometimes very elderly people will say that their time has come before they simply fade away. In that case they give themselves permission to go, and they operate their own internal switches.
    2) While there is life there is hope. One’s body may fight off the apparent (no doctor predicts the time of death, simply guesses a probability that it will happen) terminal illness, or a cure might be found. After death there is no hope
    3)As the son of a doctor I grew up hearing (in the abstract) the constant worrying about whether treatments should be continued or not. Age and state of general health were always factors to be considered along with the will of the patient and their family. And understanding the will of the people involved was also difficult. It took time to understand the motivations of the expressed will, even when the family had been patients, and perhaps neighbours for years. When an illness is defined as terminal, relationships change, and the will changes as well. Patients who have a long term wish to be helped to die in such circumstances will still want to live when the pain is less, the day after a bad day when all they wanted to do was to die.
    4) While it is easy to look at someone else, and think that “I wouldn’t like to be like them” it might well be different for us when we get to that stage. After all, life is an adventure, and for some curiosity might take the place of fear. But at death the adventure stops. Why stop an adventure in the middle?

    Personally, I would prefer the law, with its strict definitions of will, terminal, assist to die, etc to stay out of it, except perhaps to support the decision made by patients, medical teams and family.
    I would hate to be in the position of a dying patient and find that when I felt at my weakest that those around me, those that I needed most to be present, had to go to court and sign papers to make my death irrevocable…..and then wait for it to happen.

    • neilmonnery neilmonnery

      So the right to live or die is not one that we have, so if you murdered me, you’d be breaking the laws of man but you haven’t impinged on my right to life because I don’t have one?

      You seem to have overlooked the term quality of life and if you have no quality of life then you simply exist, you don’t live and that is a significant difference. What if your hope is that it will all be over? Hope is not always that you will miraculously get better, hope takes on many different forms for many different people.

      So you want the laws to stay out of it apart from perhaps if the patient, family and medical teams all agree? Isn’t that basically my point? If they all agree surely something can be done about it? At this point if something is, then those doing it would be breaking the law.

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