Today, Parliament’s inquiry into assisted dying heard from Swiss experts about how their long-standing assisted dying system works in practice. There are many lessons to be learnt from this successful system for how we can create a humane and dignified assisted dying framework here but the experts are worth listening to for another reason – the system they describe is already the UK’s de facto provider of assisted dying.
One Briton every week flees our country to have a dignified death on their own terms and the number of Brits who are members of DIGNITAS has soared by more than 80% in the past decade. It is only going to rise further.
There is no fairness in this status quo. The average cost to die in Switzerland is over £10,000 and only the wealthy can end their lives this way. The UK Government knows people die in exile. In fact, they gave the gentle nod for this to go ahead during the Covid pandemic and through this hypocrisy, knowingly gives compassion and dignity abroad to the few, while leaving the many with no freedom of choice at all.
The inquiry must understand that dying abroad isn’t fair or easy, and it’s exacerbated by the fear and uncertainty about what will happen to friends and loved ones when they return. I was devastated to learn about the ordeal of Humanists UK celebrant Sue Lawford, who was arrested at 5 am, held for sixteen hours, investigated for six months and then released without charge, all for accompanying tetraplegic woman Sharon Johnston to DIGNITAS. Sharon filmed an entire BBC documentary about her wish to die – it was her death, her choice. Yet in the end, Sue was punished for her compassion.
We are desperately falling behind the rest of the world regarding legislation on assisted dying. The scale of pain and suffering that some people experience at the end of their lives can be hard to comprehend – but Parliament must address it. Every week that they fail to do so, at least 17 people in the UK die in pain, agony, and indignity.
Much opposition to assisted dying is religious. In fact, the tendency of a minority of religious believers to think that it is their values on matters of individual conscience that should rule over the private conscientious choices of others gives the greatest cause to fear that, in spite of overwhelming public support, assisted dying will not come soon enough.
The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee which is running the assisted dying inquiry is considerably more religious than the public. Ten of the eleven committee members swore a Christian oath upon entering Parliament. Four committee members have voted against assisted dying in the past and at least three of the members of the Committee have also voted against abortion rights, a stark contrast to the 86% of the public who support women’s right to an abortion.
The moral calculation of those who think that their personal ethics on assisted dying should dictate the law of the land are hopelessly muddled. Continuing to deny a framework of assisted dying in our country does not stop assisted dying. It simply outsources assisted dying to other countries. It punishes only those too poor and vulnerable to travel. This is hypocrisy and sanctimony and helps no one, least of all those suffering as they exit this life through the torture chamber, sacrifices on the altar of the politicians in power who deny them the freedom of choice from a lofty position of power, but not the moral high ground.
For more information, check out Humanists UK’s Opinion Former profile