Brilliant speeches in passionate debate
A private member’s bill to legalise assisted suicide has been defeated in the British House of Commons by a crushing 3 to 1 margin. It was the first time in 20 years that a bill has come to the lower house. Despite high-profile support from the former director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, now a Labour MP, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, MPs defied opinion polls and voted against the measure by 330 votes to 118.
However, the issue is far from dead. Sarah Wootton, chief executive of the group Dignity in Dying, which lobbied hard for the bill, says that the battleground will shift to Britain’s courts, which have sympathised with the view that assisted suicide is a human right.
“Parliament has failed to act and if it fails to recognise its responsibility over the next five years then the courts have no choice but to act instead, to end this suffering and injustice.”
Friday’s debate on the Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill (link to Hansard) was of extraordinarily high quality. A number of the MPs are (or were) medical practitioners, adding an additional level of experience and insight.
Unlike most debates, in which the participants enter with closed minds and exit with closed minds locked tighter than ever, the MPs actually listened to each other. How often does one hear words like this?
I admit that I came into the House thinking that I would support the Bill, [said Ben Howlett, a Conservative], but listening to the speeches made by other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), has completely changed my mind.
The single most significant intervention probably came from Sir Keith, who oversaw about 80 cases of assisted suicide during his term as DPP and decided not to prosecute in 79 of them. The first of these came only six weeks into his job – the case of Dan James, a paralysed regby player who was taken to Switzerland by his parents to die there. “I took it to be the compassionate act of a loved one, and … decided not to prosecute.”
According to The Telegraph, the one of the most decisive speeches came from a Scottish MP, Dr Philippa Whitford. She told the House: “as a breast cancer surgeon for 30 years, I have been involved in the journey to death of many patients, but as a doctor I have never considered that death was a good treatment for anything, no matter what was wrong with anyone.” She concluded:
All our horizons will narrow as we get older. Someone who was hill walking when they were 20 might not manage to do so when they are 80. I have seen patients who are grateful to be at home being wheeled out on to the patio in the sun and having a good blether with their son who has come home from London. They consider that a good day. We might consider it horrific, looking at it in advance, but when we get there we will have changed. We should support letting people live every day of their life until the end, and make sure that, as legislators, we provide the means for them to live and die with dignity and comfort. We should not say, “When you can’t thole it [stand it], take the black capsule.” We should vote for life and dignity, not for death.
A Labour MP, Robert Flello, argued that assisted suicide might not be as painless as it it reputed to be:
more than half the people polled think that assisted suicide involves no pain or discomfort. Well, assisted suicide can take two forms. The first, which this Bill says it advocates, is as follows. The person is given a powerful medication to stop them from being sick. That is because the barbiturates that are used to kill them are a powerful emetic. The urge to throw up is strong and can be distressing and uncomfortable. The barbiturates are then dissolved in a tumbler full of water and have to be drunk. It takes between one minute and 38 minutes until the person falls into a coma. In around 7% of cases, the person suffers from vomiting or spasms. In one in every 10 cases there can be problems with administering the barbiturates. In Oregon, it takes, on average, 25 minutes for the person to die. But the longest period before someone died was four days. In addition, in about 1% of cases, the person has woken up. … compassion is misguided if we think that by prematurely ending someone’s life, we are alleviating suffering.
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