The assisted dying divide persists among MPs as the debate gathers pace

13 Min Read
The assisted dying divide persists among MPs as the debate gathers pace

Dame Esther Rantzen’s daughter Rebecca Wilcox presented a box of letters in support of assisted dying to Number 10 (Alamy) on Thursday

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MPs are keeping a close eye on the national debate and concerns around assisted dying, as some believe the “direction of travel” is moving towards MPs voting in favor of a change in the law.

MPs will debate assisted dying in Westminster Hall on Monday after an e-petition calling for a debate gathered more than 100,000 signatures. Although no legislation is currently being considered in the British Parliament, the debate is yet another sign that the campaign in favor of assisted dying has gained momentum in recent months. In March, Labor leader Keir Starmer said he personally supported it and promised to make time for MPs to have a free vote on the issue in Parliament if Labor comes into government, while the current government’s position also is that any change in the law must take place. be led by parliament.

A new wave of campaigning emerged when broadcaster Dame Esther Rantzen announced in December that she had joined Dignitas, an assisted dying clinic in Switzerland, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rantzen has since advocated legalizing assisted dying in the United Kingdom.

In February, the Health and Social Care Committee published a report outlining a “wide body of evidence as an important and useful resource for future debates”. Legislation to introduce assisted dying for terminally ill people is currently being considered in Jersey, the Isle of Man and Scotland.

A poll last month, conducted by Opinium on behalf of pro-assisted dying charity Dignity in Dying, found that 75 percent of people in Britain were in favor of making assisted dying legal in Britain, compared to 14 percent in return for.

But despite this momentum, many MPs remain unconvinced. Before Monday’s debate PoliticsHome spoke to MPs about the reasons why they support or oppose a change in the law, and what could convince them otherwise.

“People with disabilities are really afraid”

In 2015, protests were held for and against the assisted dying law (Alamy)

Labour’s Shadow Minister for Disability Vicky Foxcroft voted in favor of a bill to legalize assisted dying in a parliamentary free vote in 2015. Nine years later, she has changed her mind and now takes the opposite view of her party’s leader.

“I have been a bit insecure in the past,” she said, explaining that although she originally planned to abstain in the 2015 vote, she ultimately voted in favor after a moving speech by former MP Madeleine Moon, who spoke about the suffering her husband endured in the last years of his life.

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However, Foxcroft said she now strongly opposes assisted dying being legalized. She described it as “a hugely emotional subject” and it was clear she was personally affected by hearing the stories of people on both sides of the debate, pausing to wipe away tears during this interview.

“When I became shadow minister for disabled people I dealt with a lot of disabled people and charities and they are really scared,” she said.

“I just don’t think you can ever move forward with something like this when there is a large population that is terrified of it. And that’s why I’m not in favor of it: because of fear, real fear.

She said the disproportionate number of deaths among people with disabilities due to Covid had left many feeling “on so many occasions like an afterthought of this government”.

“I have changed my position, but that really came about through being in this role and listening to people,” she said.

Foxcroft doubted whether assurances about safeguards as the legislation is developed would cause her to change her position. “It’s not about this or that security, but about the way in which it is done [disabled people] feel about the legislation and how they think it could be a slippery slope,” she added. So unless you take away those fears, then no.

Foxcroft argued that in 2015 much of the debate against assisted dying focused on religious grounds: “But really the one thing that was so starkly missing from that debate in 2015 was the voice of people with disabilities.

“I have heard many people express their concerns about what might happen, the pressure they might feel, the mental anguish and sometimes even guilt at having to have support from others and not feel like a burden on them. the family and do not feel like a burden on the state.

“Representation is important, and we don’t have enough disabled MPs in parliament.”

“This is about pure personal freedom”

In 2015, protests were held for and against the assisted dying law (Alamy)

MPs voted overwhelmingly against an assisted dying bill in 2015, with 330 votes to 118 being counted. Although Labor MPs were fairly divided on the issue, the vast majority of Conservatives voted against the bill at the time.

Matt Warman, Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness, said PoliticsHome he is a strong supporter of a change in the law.

“I think Parliament needs to look around the world and say ‘what is the best thing we can do’,” he said.

“Right now we have a very old-fashioned ‘just no’ position in this country, when we don’t stop people from going to Dignitas, and we don’t stop people who try to circumvent the law. And that produces the worst form of discrimination: if you can afford it, you can have the death you want.

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“It’s emotional, but like everything else, Parliament has a very profound obligation to try to look above the lobbying… This is in some ways about pure personal freedom.”

Cases of people committing assisted suicide due to mental health problems have emerged in countries such as Denmark, which, according to campaigners against assisted dying in Britain, show the danger of a ‘slippery slope’ where assisted dying becomes normal . non-terminal conditions.

But Warman believed that Britain should not consider the ‘most extreme’ examples as a benchmark for assisted dying and should see it as a ‘binary solution’.

Addressing concerns that disabled and vulnerable people could be forced to sign up for assisted dying when the NHS is under pressure, he said while this was a “real concern”, Parliament should have the conversation to get the legislation “in the right place”. ‘ and doctors and the medical community should assess each individual case to ensure safeguards are in place.

“We should be able to say that the bar is very high to get to this point,” he said.

“You can’t go so far as to say, ‘We’re going to wait for perfect universal health care for all before we even think about that.’ I think you should say clearly that we need the best possible palliative care in Britain, we need the best possible NHS more broadly.

“There is no tension between the quality of healthcare you receive and the availability of an option if you want to take it; one is not diminished by the other.”

He said it was right that it should not be framed as a ‘political debate’, but claimed the ‘direction of travel’ among fellow MPs was towards supporting legislative changes, as well as public opinion polls showing that ‘this is what people are asking for’. .

Warman said he had not seen “any evidence” that certain groups were underrepresented in the debate.

“One of the things I struggle with is sometimes people who explicitly come from the position that they are against this, and will always be against this, bringing up the legitimate interests of vulnerable groups and saying ‘they are also on my side’,” he said.

“The reality is that these groups are mixed at best and many of them have people who are incredibly passionate about it because they see that it can be something that affects them very personally.”

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“I am open to conviction”

Justin Madders said he needed to ensure high quality palliative care was available to all (Alamy)

Other MPs take a middle position and are only open to the concept of assisted dying if certain concerns are addressed.

This was said by Labor MP and shadow minister Justin Madders PoliticsHome that he initially entered the vote in 2015 saying he was in favor of people having “autonomy over their own lives” – but that once he started digging into the details he became “reserved” and ultimately voted against.

“I was concerned about requiring two doctors to sign off and agree that someone had less than six months to live, because I’ve known many people who were told that by the doctors but ended up living a lot longer,” he said.

“So I really wanted to make sure that those medical opinions were more robust and that this didn’t end up being an option as an alternative to medical and palliative care, rather than an end-of-life choice.”

As a former shadow minister for secondary care, he said the “wide variability” in the availability and quality of care in hospices across the country was relevant to the debate.

Describing herself as someone who is ‘open to persuasion’, Madders said the most important thing was to ensure that assisted dying did not become the ‘default option for people in very difficult circumstances’ and that good quality palliative care should therefore be available . to everyone.

“We need very strong safeguards to ensure that people only do this when they are absolutely certain that it is good for them that other alternatives have not been considered and that they are truly at the end of their lives,” continued he.

“I don’t want people to spend the last few months in agonizing pain if they can really make the choice to avoid it.” But we must also be clear that if we agree to this legislation, we must be absolutely certain that it will only apply in those very limited circumstances.”

Madders said he would follow the debate “very carefully”.

“If we get a Private Members’ Bill in the next Parliament, I think it is very important, when I am here, that whoever brings it forward works with Members across Parliament to ensure that it is a Bill is as broad as possible support and has the ability to deal with the many concerns that people have on a practical level.”

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