Event report: April 19th meeting with Marie Yates, Shropshire representative for Dignity in Dying

In this event report, Malcolm Rochefort summarises Marie’s insightful presentation on the issues and arguments for an assisted dying law in the UK

On 19th April we had a talk from our local Shropshire representative of Dignity in Dying, Marie Yates on ‘Why we need an assisted dying law in the UK’. The campaign’s purpose is to change the UK law to allow the choice of an assisted death for terminally ill, mentally competent adults.

This was an excellent explanation of the background and case for an assisted dying law to be passed in the UK, and was accompanied by a very detailed presentation. My apologies if this article is longer than normal, but I make no apology for reproducing Marie’s arguments from her presentation as I believe they make a very powerful case for a change in the current legislation.

Dignity in Dying was founded in 1935 and its early supporters included HG Wells and GB Shaw.Attempts to legalise assisted dying were made in 1936 and 1950, after which it became a membership organisation. The most recent attempt to legalise was in 2015. Dignity in Dying currently has 25,000 paid-up members, 200,000 supporters on its e-mail list, and 500,000 supporters on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). There are 50 local groups.

What is Assisted Dying?

When a terminally ill, mentally competent adult, takes prescribed medication which will end their life. Under an assisted dying law, two doctors are required to assess the patient to confirm that the patient is mentally competent, is making their own choice and that their condition is terminal (6 months or less to live). There is a two-week period of reflection after approval; during this time the case would be checked by a High Court Judge before the patient receives the life-ending medication.

Assisted dying is different to assisted suicide and euthanasia

Assisted dying is currently legal in 9 states in the USA, 2 States in Australia, and New Zealand (from November 2021).

Assisted suicide – when chronically ill and/or disabled people can be given help to end their lives is legal in Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada.

Voluntary euthanasia – when terminally ill adults (and sometimes chronically ill or disabled adults) can be directly helped to end their life by a doctor, is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands.

Marie gave an example of why we should campaign for assisted dying: Lord Avebury, who was originally known as Eric Lubbock, was MP for Orpington in Kent from 1962 to 1970. He entered the House of Lords in 1971. In February 2015, he e-mailed all Dignity in Dying members, telling them that he was supporting Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying bill and that he had a personal reason for doing this, as he was going to die from myelofibrosis. In his words, “This is where the inside of the bone marrow turns to fibre and it no longer produces blood, so you suffocate. I have been told that it can be very terrible in the last stages.”

Marie was so moved that she e-mailed him directly expressing her sympathy, and, to her surprise, he responded, saying “If I can last until July 2016, my rough expectation, we should be able to see Charlie Falconer’s Bill onto the statute book!”. Unfortunately, he died in February 2016. She feels we owe him and others the right to choose to die in these terrible circumstances.

Current law in the UK bans someone assisting another person to die

Nonetheless, under guidelines from the top prosecutors, the law may turn a blind eye to compassionate amateur assistance to die. However, some face traumatic investigations for simply following their loved one’s wishes. Compassion is not a crime. The current law does nothing to protect vulnerable people, there are no safeguards as cases are only investigated after someone dies. The current law does not allow dying patients to seek advice from their healthcare professionals about assisted dying.

Marie and Dignity in Dying believe that the current law is broken and unjust

People are suffering from horrific deaths; people continue to suffer in pain as even the best palliative care cannot relief all suffering (17 people die a day in pain).Some people take matters into their own hands and attempt to complete suicide – which are often violent and botched.Some people decide to exercise control over the time and manner of their death by refusing food and water.

They ask: “How can we claim to be a humane and compassionate society and yet allow people to suffer like this?” One Brit a week travels to Dignitas in Switzerland to have an assisted death. There is significant cost to travelling abroad for an assisted death – financial, emotional and physical. Often those who travel die earlier than they would have liked, in unfamiliar surroundings, and fear for their loved ones on their return, as they could face prosecution. Why should only those who can afford it have a good death? Why should only those who have the knowledge, or the support of family members, have choice and control and others have to suffer in the UK?

We are a liberal society that values personal freedom yet we allow people to starve themselves and refuse treatment, but not end their lives peacefully. We pride ourselves on a free NHS and yet lawmakers think that paying thousands of pounds to travel to Switzerland is a solution to the problem. Healthcare professionals cannot speak to their patients and organisations cannot provide advice.

Ways of challenging the law:

Via parliament: 2014 – Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill introduced to House of Lords. Lots of support but ran out of time. 2015 – Assisted Dying Bill introduced by Rob Marris to House of Commons – rejected 3:1.

Via courts: 2018 – Noel Conway case – lost. 2014 – Tony Nicklinson case – lost. 2009 – Debbie Purdy case – won. 2002 – Diane Pretty case – lost.

As mentioned, assisted dying laws appear to work well abroad (see above), and 84% of the general UK public support a change in the law on assisted dying.

Why is there gap between public support and the views of MPs? MPs voted 3 to 1 against Rob Marris Assisted Dying Bill in Sept 2015, despite overwhelming public support. Over the past 5 years, Dignity in Dying and their supporters have brought many MPs onside through education, information and sharing personal experiences. Now, the organisation estimates that over a third of MPs support assisted dying (including Helen Morgan in North Shropshire), with many more agreeing that our current law needs reviewing.

Going forward, Dignity in Dying will:

  • Continue to challenge the courts.
  • Challenge the British Medical Association – to move to a neutral position (promising progress on this front).
  • Put pressure on MPs – through the growth of their local campaign movement, public support and media stories, and by building a powerful network of supportive MPs in Parliament.
  • Call for an inquiry or review of the problems with the current law, and hopes to introduce a new Bill into Parliament.

Ways to help:

  • Sign the petition – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/604383 (the deadline is June 30th, 2022).
  • Sign up to Dignity in Dying’s e-newsletter, follow on social media, tell your friends and family. Become a member or donate to the campaign.
  • Join up with other supporters to campaign in your area.
  • Write to your MP.
  • Share your personal story.
  • Join a specialist group – healthcare professionals, disabled activists or inter-faith leaders.

For more information and to get involved contact Dignity in Dying

Website – www.dignityindying.org.uk
E-mail – activism@dignityindying.org.uk
Telephone – 020 7479 7730
Twitter – @dignityindying
Facebook – www.facebook.com/dignityindying
Local – shropshire.group@dignityindying.org.uk