Hazel McHaffie

The Assisted Dying Bill … yet again

Patience is the name of the game when it comes to legalising assisted dying, it seems. But this week there’s been a significant breakthrough.

Back in the noughties, when I was writing my novel, Right to Die, about a young man who contracts Motor Neurone Disease and contemplates ending his own life, I lived in daily dread that something would happen to steal my thunder, and the bottom would fall out of the marketing strategy, before it hit the bookshelves. That was 13 years ago! At that time, Lord Joel Joffe was expending his energy trying to get a bill drafted to ease the lot of those facing intolerable suffering at the end of their lives. I had the privilege of meeting him in London, at the House of Lords, to talk about our shared interests, and he very kindly endorsed my book. Sadly his bill didn’t get through, and he died disappointed by this.

In Scotland, MSP Margot MacDonald fought valiantly for an easement of terminal pain and suffering, her case the more powerful because she herself was suffering with Parkinson’s Disease. I listened to her too on a number of occasions, and was moved by the passion behind her case. She too died without seeing progress on this front.

These are but two of the many notable figures who have kept the issue alive, nibbling away at the edges of the arguments about the horror for some people who face a slow undignified and painful death, and who would welcome the security of knowing that, if things became intolerable, they had a way out that wouldn’t incur penalties for those left behind. Experience in other countries (the USA and Netherlands especially) shows that a large proportion of those who have an advanced directive authorising assisted death, never actually avail themselves of the service. It’s enough to know it’s there if needed.

Over the years, we’ve all heard and seen patients and families sharing their plight with the media, publicly throwing their dwindling energies and resources into fighting for compassion and understanding. We’ve listened to politicians, clergymen, philosophers, religious people, those with disabilities, putting their perspectives into the melting pot. For and against. Passionate, angry, distressed, vengeful, dogged. And gradually, over time, we’ve seen a softening of attitudes taking place.

As far as the general public are concerned, opinion has swung in favour of a change in the law; for some kind of easement of intolerable suffering. Politicians have gradually – almost imperceptibly – become less scared of picking up this hot potato.

But one group of people who’ve remained reluctant to back assisted dying has been the doctors. Small wonder: they’re the ones who will be on the frontline, actually taking those active steps to supply the fatal drugs, or even administer them, to help eligible patients end their lives, should this become legally permissible in this country. And, as we all know, doctors are in the business of caring not killing.

However, this week, the British Medical Association has dropped its opposition to assisted dying and adopted a neutral stance. Not in favour, please note. Neutral. And indeed, the vote hinged on a hairsbreadth! 49% of the representative body voted in favour of a move to a position of neutrality; 48% were opposed to such a move. They, in turn, were acting on behalf of their members: 40% of whom were in support of a change in the law to allow assisted dying; 33 opposed to it; 21% thought the union should be neutral on the subject. A position of neutrality gives scope for all ranges of opinion. It’s a major step.

And a timely one it seems. Because next month a new version of the Assisted Dying Bill is due to be put to the House of Lords for a second reading, this time promoted by Baroness Meacher – whom I have NOT met! It would seem to have a stronger chance of success this time because of the BMA shift. Time will tell, but I’ll be watching this space closely and thinking of all those who have paved the way but died disappointed.

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