Assisted Dying

A large number of my constituents contacted me about the Assisted Dying Bill. As some of you will know, the House of Commons debated the Bill on 11th September and it was defeated by 330 votes to 118.  The Hansard record is available here so you can see what was said. I did vote for the Bill, but I respect the fact that there was a clear majority against it.

I am very aware of the sincere and strongly-held feelings on both sides of this difficult issue, so I thought it would be helpful to set out my view in some detail.

For a long time I have felt very torn about this. On the one hand, I am resolutely opposed to anything that might lead elderly or disabled people to be pressured by their families or others to bring their lives to an end; that would be wholly wrong. On the other hand, there are a number of cases in which people with terminal illnesses, often very distressing, want to be able to choose the moment of their leaving of this world. Reflecting on my own experience of family members who have been terminally ill, in truth I would have found it very difficult to know what to say to them if they had made such a request.

Sadly, as we know, a number of terminally ill people do take their own lives every year. Morphine, given for wholly compassionate reasons to ease suffering, can have the side effect, in some cases, of hastening death. Treatment is ended where it would make no fundamental difference to the outcome even though it may shorten life. And currently people from the UK can travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their lives there. It is obviously a matter of their own free choice, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has looked at this issue and decided that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute relatives who help this to happen. I agree with these CPS guidelines because I think it would be wholly wrong to take loving relatives to court in these circumstances, but it is no substitute for Parliament considering the law in this area and reaching a view.

Last summer, in his decision on the Nicklinson case, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, said this: “…a system whereby a judge or other independent assessor is satisfied in advance that someone has a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to die and for his suicide then to be organised in an open and professional way, would, … provide greater and more satisfactory protection for the weak and vulnerable, than a system which involves a lawyer from the DPP’s [Director of Public Prosecutions’] office inquiring, after the event, whether the person who had killed himself had such a wish, and also to investigate the actions and motives of any assister….”.

Turning now to Rob Marris MP's Bill, as I understood it what it proposed was that a terminally ill adult who is of sound mind should have the choice, with strong safeguards and the alternative of good palliative care, to self-administer medicine to end their own life. The Bill would only have covered someone aged 18 or over who was “terminally ill”; ie whose life expectancy was less than 6 months (it would not apply to people with disabilities or people who are depressed or who suffer from dementia). The person would have to be of sound mind and voluntarily (ie with no coercion) sign a declaration that they wish to end their own life. Two doctors and a High Court judge would then have to be satisfied about the requesting patient’s eligibility, and that he or she had made a fully informed decision, before assisted dying would be allowed.  Then, after a 14 day waiting period, a doctor would give the medicine to the patient who would have to take it themselves; no-one else – eg the doctor, spouse or other family member - would be allowed to give them the drug. For me, this was really important as there was no question of someone else administering the drug. And there would not have been a requirement on any doctor to take part; ie religious belief and conscientious objection would have been fully protected.

I realise, of course, that describing the process in this way may appear shocking, but if the law was to permit this then there must to be full and proper safeguards. Without them, some of the fears about where this might all lead could come to pass, and I did not want that to happen.

Having thought very long and hard about this, I voted for the Bill at Second Reading so that it could be scrutinised in detail, while continuing to feel some unease. There is, however, no easy answer here either way.

I deeply respect those who for reasons of religious or other conviction are resolutely opposed to such a step, but equally I deeply respect the strongly held view of those who are facing the prospect of their own death to want to be able to determine the timing and the manner of it, surrounded by those who love them and whom they love.

Hilary Benn

MP for Leeds Central


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