The botched assisted dying debate

Jul 12, 2019 by

by James Mumford, UnHerd:

Suppose assisted dying were legalised in Britain tomorrow. How would we measure if that was a successful move or not? Would a low take-up justify having changed the law? Or a high one?

And what if the number of terminally ill people who sought recourse to assisted dying were to increase over time? Would that be a cause for concern? Or would it vindicate the legislation, simply showing that people were exercising rights previously denied to them?

These are the kind of critical questions MPs failed to ask in last week’s debate on assisted dying – the first in four years. Any serious consideration of the way legalisation could transform our whole culture in relation to ageing, chronic illness and dying was sorely missing.

Instead, MPs lined up to explain why they had dropped their previous opposition to assisted dying. From Nick Boles to Sir Vince Cable, one by one they registered their volte-face on the subject. And by doing so they abdicated their responsibility as leaders: to paint a vivid picture of possible future scenarios. They repeatedly refused to accept the invitation – one offered by Lyn Brown for example – to foresee the difference such a monumental step could make; indeed, even to acknowledge it would be a monumental step.

Assisted dying is a highly emotive and deeply distressing issue. I cannot begin to imagine the acute pain, profound fear and bewildering loss of control that is said to come with motor-neurone disease or the late stages of cancer. That suffering, those stories, must not be left out of deliberation. Nor should we dismiss the strength of such unwell patients’ desire for control over the manner and timing of their deaths.

But nor should we ignore the wider effects that a change to the law might have on society; how it would transform the experience of ageing, the dynamics of the family and the practice of medicine.

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