Comment: We support the right to die – but not for Paul Lamb

By Sarah Wootton

In the last few years the campaign to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults has been increasing in momentum. Britons continue to travel abroad to die and the law -following guidelines from the director of public prosecutions endorsed by MPs – effectively forgives compassionate amateur assistance to die.

Last week, Paul Lamb, previously known as 'L' to the media, lifted his anonymity as a member of the Nicklinson legal challenge. This legal case seeks to establish that in certain circumstances, it would be lawful on the grounds of necessity for doctors to directly end their patient's lives at their request. This reignited interest in the issues surrounding 'the right to die' and highlighted an interesting dimension of the debate: when assistance to die is legalised, who should have that right and where should we draw the line?

People often assume that Dignity in Dying would be fully behind this case; it's about the choice of how you die after all.  In fact we're not.  If the law we campaign for were enacted tomorrow, Paul Lamb would not be able to use it to secure help to die because Dignity in Dying's desired law change is based on two core criteria: mental competence and terminal illness. While Paul Lamb is mentally competent, he is not terminally ill.

I met Tony Nicklinson and could not help but sympathise with him and the situation he was in. Paul Lamb appears to be a similarly resolute and articulate man who is suffering enormously. But Dignity in Dying campaigns for dying people to have the right to die well, not for an unfettered right to die, and we believe legislation must balance the rights of the individual against the needs of society.

There is a small but significant minority of dying Britons suffering unbearably and against their wishes at the end of life.  I am certain that we can implement a law which would safely give those people the option to reduce their suffering at the end of life by choosing an assisted death. This law would not compromise the safety of potentially vulnerable people; it would better protect those who are vulnerable now because of a lack of upfront safeguards.

I believe that this position is philosophically and medically the right one. It also happens to be the one supported by a considerable majority of the population (80%). This support halves when considering assistance to die for non-terminally ill people.

This is why we are backing an assisted dying bill, to be tabled by Lord Falconer QC in the coming months. Within upfront safeguards to determine mental capacity and terminal diagnosis, dying people should have choice and control over the manner of their death. They should not have to suffer against their wishes, nor should they have to travel abroad to die or asked loved ones to break the law to help them.

A new law will safeguard patients, protect family members and ensure the medical profession can be involved. Experience in Oregon in the USA where assisted dying has been legal for 15 years shows that the law works safely and that dying people take comfort from having the 'insurance policy' of the choice of an assisted death, whether or not they actually use the law.

While the guidelines resulting from Debbie Purdy's legal case, which effectively decriminalised compassionate assistance to die, are helpful for people considering their end of life options now, a bad law applied with common sense and compassion is no match for a sensible and compassionate law applied with rigour and force.

We look forward to Lord Falconer's sensible and compassionate bill being presented to and debated in parliament. What the courts make of Mr Lamb's legal appeal remains to be seen; what is immediately clear is that legalising the choice of an assisted death for people who are dying and competent is well overdue. 

Sarah Wootton is the chief executive of Dignity in Dying, one of the highest-profile political campaigns in the UK today, with over 25,000 supporters calling for greater choice and control at the end of life.  Under her leadership, Dignity in Dying successfully challenged the legal system by winning the Debbie Purdy case, leading to the historic recognition that in certain circumstances people should not be prosecuted for helping a loved one to die.

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