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, said that Parliament was out of touch with public opinion and that the battleground will now 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.”

This, of course, makes a mockery out of parliamentary democracy. Voters choose MPs to represent their interests until the next election. If judges acting on the advice of opinion polls overrule the legislature, they effectively delegate their powers to commercially-driven market research companies. Ominously, this is what happened across the Atlantic on the issue of same-sex marriage and it could happen in Britain with assisted suicide. 

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.

Amongst so many fine contributions, it is difficult to single out some at the expense of others. However, Sir Edward Leigh, a veteran Conservative MP, spoke for many of his colleagues when he expressed his concern about the future:

What sort of society do we want to create? Do we want to create one in which we solve our problems by killing? I admit that my religious belief informs my view, and people could ask what right I have to impose my religious beliefs—seen in opposition to abortion or capital punishment or to war or to assisted dying or death—on them. I would at least ask them this question: “What sort of society do we want to create when we feel that we can solve problems by hastening death rather than promoting life?” What sort of society are we creating if we say that we value people who are healthy, fit, beautiful and young more than we value people who are poor, old, crippled, ill and dying? We feel that in those people there is an eternal soul waiting there—a beautiful soul that needs to be nurtured. Even if people do not share this religious belief, surely they can come to the conclusion—even as humanists with a humane point of view—that we must promote a society that respects the old, the ill and the dying and gives them every chance of life.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet