Assisted Dying

Thank you for contacting me about assisted dying.

As you may be aware, I am clear that we need to change the law in favour of assisted dying. It is right that this is an unwhipped free vote. Many MP colleagues have legitimate reasons to oppose, and it is a matter that will divide the House of Commons.

Coping with terminal illness is distressing and difficult both for the patient and their families. These cases are truly moving and evoke the highest degree of compassion and emotion.

This topic is personal to me. During the Budget debate in 2011, I collapsed in the Central Lobby of the House of Commons. It was not George Osborne's Budget that made me ill, but a tumour the size of a small fist in the left part of my brain. I was rushed to St Thomas's hospital in central London where an A&E doctor advised me that I required a craniotomy to remove the meningioma from my brain. It was an extremely frightening experience. I was advised to the likelihood of death, paralysis, loss of speech, and so much more. I was one of the lucky ones who survived with few scars. However, many of my fellow patients who I met during my treatment were not so lucky. To deny a dignified death to those who are suffering during the last weeks of their life seems manifestly unfair to me.

The tragedy is that we effectively now have one law for the rich, and one for the poor. It cannot be right that those who need our support most, at the end of their lives, live in fear and uncertainty of how or where their last moments will be, and whether their loved ones will face prosecution after they are gone. It seems to me manifestly wrong that individual members of the public do not have the choice and are prevented by law from doing something in this country that they are able to go and do legally at Dignitas in Switzerland. How can it be fair that wealth determines dignity in death?

Fundamentally, the heart of this debate centres on one question: to whom does a person's life belong. I suggest that a person's life belongs to the individual themselves. It should be for those who are not as lucky as I was to make their choices about how they live, and if required, how they end their own lives. This is a transfer of power from the state to the individual, who is then free to choose, subject to very strict safeguards. Every patient has the right to life, but they also have the right to personal autonomy and dignity. When a patient’s condition has no cure, and death is a certainty, there must be a point where the individual has a right to end their own suffering.

I believe the application of the law should be flexible enough to distinguish the facts and the circumstances of one case from another. I fully accept that suicide, assisting or encouraging suicide, assisted dying and euthanasia are all subjects on which it is entirely possible for people to hold widely different but defensible opinions. This is why the substance of the law in this area is not a matter of party politics but of conscience, and any vote would be a free one should the law in this area ever be altered.

One of the central arguments against assisted dying is that it would lead to a slippery slope. However, assisted dying will not lead to more deaths, but to less suffering. Safeguards are essential and nobody disagrees with that. Those that argue safeguards do not work, or that it is not possible, should look to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. In place for 17 years, it enables someone who is terminally ill to request the option of an assisted death. There has been no evidence of abuse since its inception. Further to that, around 40% of dying people who meet the strict safeguards to obtain life-ending medication never use it, simply taking comfort from having the option.

Everyone would agree that terminally ill patients should receive the highest quality palliative support and end-of-life care, and that they and their families should be certain that their end-of-life care will meet all of their needs. With that in mind I welcome the Department of Health’s End of Life Care Strategy which is intended to improve access to good quality palliative care and encourage the Government further to develop specialist palliative care and hospice provision. I believe that competent adults who are terminally ill should be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life.

I have no doubt that eventually the law will change in the UK - as it is changing elsewhere. I vividly remember walking through the voting lobby in the House of Commons with Ed Miliband, discussing how it requires leaders of medics, churches and our communities to see things differently.

If you would like to read more about my stance on this important issue, the following link may be of interest to you:

This includes a video of the debate, in 2012, in the House of Commons where I spoke about being in favour of this law changing and why it is so important.

I come back to a simple issue which, I suggest, is at the heart of the entire debate over assisted dying: to whom does a person’s life belong? I suggest that a person’s life belongs to the individual themselves. It is for those who are not as lucky as I was to make their choices about how they live their lives. That somebody cannot take those choices does not mean that MP's in Parliament should deny them of any choice. It upsets me tremendously that the state prescribes that it knows best. It cannot be right that individual members of the public are prevented from doing something in this country that they are able to go and do at Dignitas in Switzerland, where they can die in the manner of their choosing.

Thank you again for taking the time to get in touch about this important issue.