assisted dying – a seismic shift in British law and culture in 2014?

I’m writing this to give you a heads up about Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill and to ask you to support it.

The bill- briefly introduced last May 2103 – gets its second reading sometime this spring/summer, which means it will be properly debated this time and could go further.  I hope so.  I agree with Betty (now Baroness) Boothroyd who recently said “This is a moral issue whose time has come“.

The current UK law is an mess which denies the freedom to individuals to take well considered and dignified steps to end their own lives in order to avoid overwhelming misery and suffering.  It really is as simple as that.  The debate will go in a zillion different directions and there’ll be plenty of scare-mongering from opponents of the Bill.  For me, the core principles and motivation behind this proposal are compassion and respect and the details of the Bill allay concerns over potential abuse.  As Schopenhauer said “… there’s nothing over which a person has an indisputable right more than their own life”.

The first attempt to change the UK law along these lines was in 1935, drafted by the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society (VELS) in its first year. The following year, as he lay comatose on his deathbed, George V was injected with fatal doses of morphine and cocaine to assure him a painless death. This fact was kept secret for fifty years.  The King’s doctor spoke out against a change in the law – he didn’t think it was wrong, he thought it should be the doctors that decide.

Things have and haven’t changed since then.  Representatives of medical bodies are mostly still against a change in the law, though various polls of individual doctors show a different personal response and a desire for their medical representatives to adopt a position of neutrality.  That the BMA refused a request in 2013 (from Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying) for a survey of its members views speaks volumes to me… Church leaders are opposed to assisted dying – and at odds therefore with the majority of their flocks (see below).

Buddhist ethics are based on precepts, training principles, not rigid rules or commandments.  Number one is to love and protect life.  In buddhism, mind is primary and so the intention behind an action is as -if not more –  important than the action itself.  Assisted dying is for people who are already dying choosing to end suffering ; it’s not about a hatred of life.

Public opinion polls have shown a majority in favour of a change in the law for some time now.  The latest (YouGov) poll shows 76% in favour of Lord Falconer’s Bill. Please don’t be a silent member of this majority.  Gen up on the issues and start talking about them, including with your doctor and MP.  A great place to start is by going to www.dignityindying.org.uk to find out more about Lord Falconer’s Bill.  Sign up for their newsletter and give them some money while you’re at it!

The VELS that began in 1935 morphed into Dignity in Dying in 2005 – and refined its core aim to focus on campaigning for assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults.   It was so overwhelmed with public enquiries and the need for information about choices and rights at the end of life, that it set up Compassion in Dying to deal with that, and to enable it to re-focus on campaigning.  (Compassion in Dying are also the leading provider of free advance directives in the UK  www.compassionindying.org.uk).

Changing a law helps change the culture of a society.  Trying to change a law begins that cultural change.  We can all be a part of that.  Simply talking more about death helps to normalise it.  It doesn’t bring it on!  

The BBC’s Coronation Street got the nation talking in January with a storyline about character Hayley Cropper (I resist an obvious joke here) being diagnosed with inoperable cancer and deciding to committ suicide.  Nine million watched her final episode.  If you want to know more about that click on this link http://www.ehospice.com/uk/ArticleView/tabid/10697/ArticleId/8493/language/en-GB/View.aspx

I don’t watch soaps but I did hear about Hayley and the right-to-die debate all over the media.  Let’s hope that bodes well for more change to come in 2014.  Please play your part.  Thanks for reading this.  May the fear and reality of dying in misery and suffering become a thing of the past.