Today (22 October) outside parliament there was a large, silent, dignified crowd. Among the placards were those reading “choice, compassion, dignity”, some bearing the pictures of loved ones who’d inspired its members to campaign.
They were sending a message to 126 peers debating the second reading of the Assisted Dying Bill, a private member's bill put forward by crossbench peer Baroness Meacher, who put her case for the Bill on the Today programme this morning. The Bill would enable adults of sound mind, with six months or less to live, to be provided with life-ending medication with the approval of two doctors and a High Court judge. A public consultation on a similar Bill began in Scotland last month.
We believe that assisted dying is an option that needs to be available to those in absolute pain and misery – with appropriate and robust legal safeguards in place, as other nations have demonstrated is possible – for the 1 per cent of people for whom palliative care is inadequate to ease their suffering.
Feminists pioneered the principle “the personal is political”, and on that ground, our position starts from the personal; were we to be in a situation of intolerable suffering at the end of life, we would both want the option available to us personally.
We’ve also both seen cases where the lack of availability of assisted dying has created horrendous individual situations. One case saw an older gentleman attempt suicide, unsuccessfully, alone, without having told any members of his family for fear of legal hazard. That was a horrendous situation for him, and his loved ones.
Another is a recent personal experience of watching a friend die and seeing the suffering of her and her husband for many decades. ‘Dying well’, with dignity and control and the sense that all that needs to be said has been said, in as peaceful and calm an environment as possible, is something that many aspire to and something that our society too often fails to support.
Providing the right to assisted dying is also the policy of the Green Party – flowing from our respect for personal autonomy, the need for a caring society, and the right of individuals to make decisions for themselves.
As today’s debate neared, many spoke out from personal experience, from the doctor whose patient committed suicide after the medic was forced to say he could not help him end his own life, to the family who were forced to watch a loved one suffer awfully when the Covid pandemic prevented an overseas journey for assistance, and even a Tory peer who had voted against assisted dying, but changed his mind, when his father died in pain and would have chosen assisted dying.
There is no doubt we need to see far better investment in palliative care in the UK. We shouldn’t have to see volunteers rattling fundraising buckets for hospices to meet their basic funding needs. But that goes along with the right for individuals to be in control – knowing that the option of assisted dying is available will allow many to die naturally in far less fear.
Of course, assisted dying is already available to some in our society – those who have the significant funds, the knowledge and the remaining health to get to Dignitas in Switzerland. The argument for assisted dying in the UK is also very much an equalities issue.
But that requires being fit to travel, so a further tragedy of the current situation is people dying before they need to, perhaps when they might not have needed to avail themselves of the right at all.
The British Medical Association has just ended its opposition to assisted dying, the Royal College of Physicians did so in 2019, the courts have clearly indicated this is a matter that Parliament should address.
Today’s debate is a crucial one. It is important that this Bill is able to progress, to see parliament dealing with the issue on which there is strong, broad public support, including among people with disabilities and people of faith.