Comment: Compassionate law on assisted dying is a must

One day we will look back in shock at society's current approach to death and the unbearable suffering which is inflicted by the lack of a compassionate law.

By James Harris

Working for Dignity in Dying does not make you emotionally numb to the issues raised by our campaign. Many of us, including myself, are motivated having witnessed the bad death of a loved one.

We strive to ensure that people do not have to suffer against their wishes at the end of life and believe that one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will look back in shock at the way we currently approach death and dying.

In time, everybody approaching the end of life will be able to access good quality care and treatment, and have the choice of an assisted death, should they consider their suffering unbearable in the last days and weeks of life. But it will be a struggle, although not an insurmountable one, to make that a reality.

As with any job you can find yourself immersed in the detail of what you are doing, only to be confronted by the bigger picture. At Dignity in Dying this happens almost on a daily basis, with constant conversations with supporters and spokespeople whose testimonies about death and dying are heartbreaking.

The BBC2 documentary Choosing to Die, authored by Sir Terry Prachett, again reinforced the realities of the debate on assisted dying.

I found it deeply moving, but much like everyone else at times difficult to watch. It followed the journey of Peter Smedley, terminally ill with motor neurone disease, as he travelled abroad to die at Dignitas in Switzerland.

It also featured interviews with Andrew Colgan, who struggled with MS and who had also chosen to die at Dignitas and Mick, a former London cabbie with motor neurone disease, who whilst supportive of 'assisted suicide' had chosen to die 'naturally' at a hospice at home in Britain. Although not keen to replicate Dignitas in Britain, Sir Terry Pratchett concluded that he respected all three men's choices.

My own view was a mixture of sadness and anger at a law which forced Peter and Andrew to travel abroad to have the death they wanted.

These two men felt they had to travel abroad when still physically able to or face a death they didn't want at home. Surely it would be much better to allow people the choice of an assisted death at home in Britain when they approach the final days of life or weeks of life, and if they are competent to make that decision.

The common argument against providing dying people with this choice are that their autonomous decision impacts on others, and could place potentially vulnerable people in harm's way. The law should be framed for vulnerable people, not the articulate and assured they argue.

I believe this is a false argument and that a new law with up-front safeguards would better ensure patient safety in end-of-life decision making.

The law as it stands threatens anyone who assists someone to die with up to 14 years in prison. However, in reality and subject to two key factors, that someone helps solely on compassionate grounds and that such assistance is amateur rather than professional, prosecutions are not brought. Regardless of the law, people are still taking matters into their own hands.

As last night's programme showed people are travelling abroad to die, and in addition they are ending their lives domestically. Sometimes with the illegal assistance of loved ones or healthcare professionals, or in other cases are using the internet as an information and counselling service.

The only safeguard against possible coercion is a retrospective investigation after someone has died, when the police and the Crown Prosecution Service have to establish the intentions of someone who has already died, and when it is too late to protect them if they didn't want an assisted death.

Dignity in Dying believes it would be much better to allow a full consideration of someone's request to die when they are still alive and all of their options can be discussed with healthcare professionals.

Many, as evidenced by the assisted dying laws in the US states of Oregon and Washington, will choose not to have an assisted death but are reassured by having the choice. Others, subject to confirmation of their terminal condition and mental competence, will choose to control the time and manner of their death.

You may disagree with their decision or not want it for yourself, but most of us appreciate that it is a more compassionate approach than forcing people to travel to a foreign country to die, or attempt to end their lives alone and behind closed doors.

Some time ago parliament did not shy away from dealing with issues that were deemed contentious (they are only ever deemed contentious by those who disagree): they had the courage to legalise homosexuality and ban the death penalty amongst other landmark laws.

I hope, and I am confident, that parliament will find the courage to deal with this issue in the months and years to come. In doing so they will find that a clear majority of the public support them, and will pay fitting tribute to many Britons who courageously face the end of life at present confined by the decisions of others who oppose a compassionate law.

James Harris is the director of campaigns and communications at Dignity in Dying. He joined the organisation in 2007 following a spell as a parliamentary researcher.

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