Dear Reverend Mellish,
Thank you for contacting me about Rob Marris’ Assisted Dying Bill. I appreciate that this difficult issue raises strong and genuinely held opinions on both sides of the debate, and I wanted to read through the Bill in its entirety, which has only recently been published, before responding to you.
I approach this dilemma with an open mind. Anyone who has had a family member or loved one with a terminal illness knows how distressing and difficult it can be, both for the patient, their family and friends. Highly emotive cases increasingly appear on the news, and our palliative care must be as sensitive and flexible as possible to these peoples’ needs. This should not, however, distract us from the essential question this Bill poses: should doctors be licensed to supply lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who ask for them and meet certain conditions?
Having read through the Bill, I feel, regardless of whether in principal you support or oppose assisted suicide, there are insufficient safeguards in place to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. At this point it is also worth stressing that this is the conclusion all the Royal Colleges, the British Medical Association (BMA) and the major disability charities have come to.
Although the Bill does include provisions to ensure those wishing to end their life have met certain qualifying criteria, there is no guarantee that these will translate into concrete safeguards. This is particularly the case in deciding whether a request for assisted suicide derives from a settled wish or whether it is being influenced by pressure of one sort or another. That pressure may come from a family member, or, unfortunately, an internal belief from the patient themself that they are a burden on their loved ones.
On this point, careful consideration must be given to the doctors whose responsibility it will be to ultimately make the final decision. A decision of this magnitude must, of course, take into account factors that lie outside the field of medicine, something research indicates only one out of seven GPs would be prepared to do. Drawing on my experience as a lawyer, it is also difficult to see how this fundamental problem can be mitigated by the arbitration of a High Court judge, whose duty, as envisaged by the Bill, would be to little more than rubber stamp the doctors’ decision.
Where similar legislation has been enacted overseas, there has often been a demand for changes to the laws governing other forms of euthanasia. In Belgium, for example, a law was passed in 2014 to enable children to be euthanized, whilst in Oregon – on whose assisted suicide law this Bill is based – the extension of euthanasia is currently being considered. I am concerned that, if assisted suicide were to be legalised in Britain, in may prove difficult to avoid a similar trend.
I believe more safeguards need to be put in place, and a clear plan of how these would actually work in practice, before assisted suicide could ever be legalised here. For that reason I will not be supporting Rob Marris’ Private Members’ Bill when it comes before Parliament in September.
Thank you again for taking the trouble to contact me.