Why the law on assisted dying must change – Christine Jardine

In Scotland, there is no specific law against assisted dying but people could still be prosecuted for culpable homicide, writes Christine Jardine.

Dignity in Dying campaigners support a legal challenge to a law banning assisted dying (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Dignity in Dying campaigners support a legal challenge to a law banning assisted dying (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

I’m sure I am not alone in hoping that when my time comes it is peacefully, in my sleep, at the end of a day full of fun and laughter with the ones I love.

But I also know that is probably not going to happen.

It took me many years to come to terms with the emotional conflict between my despair at losing my mother and the relief that she was no longer enduring the pain of having her lungs destroyed by asbestos.

I have often wondered if the overwhelming desire for even just one more day was selfish.

The thing I regret most is that when the end did come, despite knowing it was inevitable, it still caught me by surprise.

The visit I had promised my daughter the next day never happened. There were no goodbyes. I have no way of knowing if Mum would have wanted to control things. Decide for herself when she wanted it to end.

But I have often wondered if she should have had the choice.

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In the past 20 years, more than 400 people have travelled from the UK to Dignitas in Switzerland precisely because they wanted to, and could afford, to make that choice.

Sadly there is no way of knowing if that reflects the number of people, facing the final stages of a terminal illness, who would like to have control of the manner and timing of the end of their life.

And far from feeling that we are protecting the sanctity of life, I find myself becoming increasingly concerned that we, as law-makers, are shirking our responsibility to those who look to us for support.

A right to choose

Seven years ago, I first wrote in this newspaper about the end of life bill which the late Margo Macdonald had, at that time, introduced in the Scottish Parliament.

It was her second bid to put the power to control the end of their own lives in the hands of those for whom it was an imminent reality.

I had contacted her while I was writing it and shortly after the article appeared we met for a chat which has stayed with me.

Margo was someone I first met when I was a young journalist at Radio Clyde. I had a deep respect for her as a politician. In this one issue, more than any other, she had a profound effect on what I believe.

For me, it all comes down to that word, choice. I have had it in practically every aspect of my life. University, career, marriage, politics.

I do not harbour any illusion that I am ever actually in control of events. But at least I have the choice of how I react to them.

Since that first article, I have moved from being someone who wanted to support change when it came, to being determined to ensure that it happens.

Which is why and how I have been working with the campaign Dignity in Dying and across parties in the House of Commons to spark public debate on the issue.

‘Compassion is not a crime’

This past week we re-established the All-Party Parliamentary Group “For Choice at the End of Life” with the aim of fostering discussion, focussed entirely on the rights of those who have reached the final stages of a terminal illness and are judged mentally capable of making the decision.

The central thrust of Dignity in Dying’s campaign is the idea that “compassion is not a crime”.

It highlights the fact that not only does the current law rob people suffering from terminal illness of their dignity in death, it also criminalises family members who support their loved one’s wish for a choice over how they die.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, assisting a suicide is a crime. If convicted, you can face up to 14 years in prison.

There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.

How, in 2020, can we still treat what for many is purely an expression of human love and compassion as a crime?

I challenge anyone not to be moved to tears when reading testimonials from families impacted by the ban on assisted dying.

Stories of husbands and wives already dealing with the loss of their lifelong companion, treated like criminals and facing prison under British law.

We often pride ourselves on how far have come as a liberal, progressive society that treats everyone with compassion and equality under the law.

But when it comes to how we treat our citizens at the end of their lives, we’re seriously lagging behind.

Opinion is shifting

Canada, Switzerland, the Benelux nations and the US states of Oregon, Washington and California have all legalised assisted dying for terminally ill and mentally capable adults to some degree.

Public opinion here in the UK largely backs that approach.

According to polls, around 84 per cent of the public support a change in the law on assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. This includes the general public, people of faith and people with disabilities.

And opinion in the medical profession is also shifting. While the Royal College of Physicians moved to neutral last year, the Royal College of GPs will be reconsidering its opposed stance next month and the British Medical Association will do the same at its annual conference in June. This week in Parliament, I will lead a 90-minute debate on the subject. My hope is that it will be the beginning of a thorough and sensitive public and political exploration of how our society deals with this most sensitive and difficult of issues.

In a chat over a coffee with a friend last week, we mused that we have had many lives. In my case journalist, mother, politician and, if I’m lucky, elderly retirement.

But we will only have one death. I hope when it comes, if it is to be as the result of one of the many terminal illnesses that can affect any of us that, I will be allowed to choose when and how I want that final happy day to end.

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West