September 15 2014 Latest news:
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
People who are terminally-ill and suffering should have the right to end their lives with the support of their families and medical professionals, says health minister and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb.
Today, he explains to EDP readers why he has changed his mind on this emotive subject in advance of a vote in the House of Lords on a bill on assisted dying which could herald a change in the law. He says: “If I found myself in that situation, I know that I would like to have the choice.”
In the past, I have opposed any attempt to legalise “assisted dying”. I share the concerns many people have that any change in the law could result in frail older people being put under pressure from relatives. I have sympathy with those who say that the risk to many vulnerable individuals of legalising assisted dying outweighs the benefits. And I also understand those who object to this on religious grounds.
All of these concerns are legitimate, and must be considered carefully. But in recent years, I have changed my mind on this issue of such profound importance.
Votes in Parliament about assisted dying are always free votes. They are not whipped, and it is appropriate for the government not to express any opinion on the subject. This is a matter of conscience – where each MP must come to a personal decision about what is right, and in the interests of their constituents.
In a few weeks’ time, the House of Lords will vote on a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Lord Falconer, who was Lord Chancellor during much of the last Labour government and is now a back bench peer. It could proceed to the House of Commons, so Parliament may, over the course of the next year, have the opportunity to decide whether this reform is needed.
The Bill would allow terminally ill adults to have a choice over how and when they die. It would restrict the new provision to adults who are mentally competent and have six months or less to live.
It would require them to demonstrate to two doctors that they had a clear, settled, and well-informed intention to end their life. The request would have to be witnessed by someone who was not a relative, and not directly involved in the patient’s care.
Before the patient could end their life, they would have to be fully informed about the palliative care and support alternatives available to them. There would be a 14-day waiting period required, to allow the patient to reflect upon their decision (six days if the patient’s death is expected to occur within a month). And while a doctor would be allowed to prescribe life-ending drugs, the patient would have to take the medication themselves.
In a recent poll carried out by YouGov, it was found that 76pc of adults in England and Wales support the proposals contained in the Bill. If the Bill comes to the House of Commons, I intend to support it myself.
In my years as an MP, I have spoken to many terminally ill patients, and to others whose loved ones suffered long drawn-out, painful deaths.
Many of them have made the argument that where someone is suffering intolerably, and when they are reaching the end of their life, they should be allowed to decide to end their suffering with the support of relatives, friends, and clinicians.
If I found myself in that situation, I know that I would like to have the choice – whether or not I made use of it.
Back in 2010 the Director of Public Prosecutions provided guidance to the effect that where a relative acted out of compassion in assisting someone to die there should not be a prosecution.
Since then there have been some 90 cases where prosecutors have considered the facts of such cases to decide whether to prosecute. What an invidious position to put families in – left not knowing whether they will face criminal charges.
I am interested to hear from people about their views locally in advance of the vote.
This is one of the most difficult issues to deal with as an MP, and there are legitimate reasons for people taking different views.
As a Liberal, I have ultimately come to the view that, while there must be rigorous safeguards, it is right to give people choice about how they end their lives where they are terminally ill and suffering.
It should be their decision, not the state’s.
Norman Lamb is MP for North Norfolk and Minister of State for Care and Support