Are MPs misrepresenting the debate on assisted suicide?

3 May 2024

Carys Moseley comments on the Westminster Hall debate on 29 April 2024

On Monday, many MPs debated the topic of assisted suicide (wrongly termed ‘assisted dying’) at Westminster Hall.

The first half of the debate was dominated by MPs who were in favour of changing the law. Several of those said they had changed their minds due to hearing stories of suffering from their own constituents.

Rereading the debate on Hansard, one has to wade through a lot of anecdotes before coming to broader arguments about the policies. Some points made by MPs objecting to changing the law raise the fundamental question: are pro-assisted suicide MPs misrepresenting the debate?

The pro-assisted suicide lobby claims to consider all concerns fully

The debate was brought forward by Tonia Antoniazzi (Labour), on the basis of a Parliamentary petition calling for a change in the law.

She said that in preparing for this debate she had met people with many different views on the topic, in particular medics. She said:

“We must never dismiss concerns, but consider them fully.”

This is a tactic that the assisted suicide lobby is using to give an impression of being in favour of everybody’s rights. How well does it stand up?

‘The debate will happen anyway’

Immediately after Antoniazzi said this, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael stood up to claim that the debate on assisted suicide will happen anyway. Here are his words:

“Is not the truth of the matter that the debate will continue whether we have it here or not? My colleague Liam McArthur has a Bill going through the Scottish Parliament at the moment. Similar legislation is being considered in the Isle of Man and in the Channel Islands. This issue will have to be addressed. Either we do that in our own time, with our own measured, reasoned debate, or we risk having decisions made for us.”

Carmichael is using the fact that bills for legalising assisted suicide are currently under consideration in Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands as a reason for assuming that the law will change in England, Wales and Northern Ireland anyway.

It is incorrect to assume that anybody but Parliament can make a decision to change the law on assisted suicide. This arrogant fatalism shows subtle disregard for opponents and fence-sitters. The real meaning of ‘debate’ here is ‘change in the law’. Maybe Carmichael was hinting at something else, namely a court case designed to force Parliament to change the law.

Does the current law force people to commit suicide?

Rachel Hopkins (Labour), a self-described Humanist, made the extraordinary claim that the current law somehow forces people to commit suicide.

“As a humanist, I believe in individuals’ right to make informed choices about their own care and quality of life, and I do not believe that people should be forced into making horrible, lonely decisions to end their own life, something that the blanket ban on assisted dying in this country fails to recognise.”

The current law forbids assisted suicide; it’s deeply misleading to claim that a law that upholds life is, in fact, pro-suicide. She never indicated which criteria should be used to decide when assisted suicide is permissible so that death isn’t painful.

What sort of debate do pro-assisted suicide MPs really want?

Many of the MPs speaking in favour of assisted suicide said they wanted a lengthy debate on the topic. I am less than convinced. Siobhan Bailey (Conservative) relayed numerous personal stories from constituents, which had persuaded her to support changing the law, then said:

“I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis) that we need days of debate on this, with everybody involved. It has to be very well thought through.”

As all her anecdotes were chosen to support changing the law, it seems the debate that she wants is not about whether to change it but how.

Is it really about ‘my right to choose’?

Andy Slaughter (Labour) made this claim of first principles:

“For me, this is about one very simple question: that at the end of my life, it is not just my choice but my right to decide the manner and timing of my leaving it.”

However in the same breath he went on to say this:

“In reality, I do not believe that anybody would say that their religion or their personal views should impact on my choice. The issue is whether there is undue pressure—by the state, the family or the person themselves in considering that act. We have many laws for dealing with coercive behaviour. We should have better palliative care. As a society, we should be able to reassure people that they are all valued as long as they want to be with us, even at the end of life and even, perhaps, in great pain and suffering. That should not be a barrier to those who wish to decide to leave because of great pain, because of great suffering and because the end of their life is near. As a society, we have to grasp that very difficult decision and move on.”

The focus on choosing to leave life due to pain and suffering ignores the problem of people moving in and out of consciousness due to their condition.

The idea that ‘the end of their life is near’ is far too subjective and changeable given medical advances to be a reliable guide to permitting assisted suicide. In Oregon’s law, diabetes is treated as a terminal illness.

The argument that changing the law is just about giving the individual (‘me’) the right to choose how he or she dies does not hold up. Note finally how this MP says that society needs to change the law and ‘move on’. Nothing is said about the collateral damage the change would cause.

Abused women at risk

This misleading picture given by MPs supporting legal change was further undermined by Ian Paisley from the DUP. He discussed at length an article by Guardian journalist Sonia Sodha on how she moved from supporting assisted suicide to becoming conflicted about it. This is what he said paraphrasing her:

“One third of suicides of females in the United Kingdom are related to intimate partner abuse—just think about that. We have all read the stories, seen the court reports and heard from our constituents about coercive and abusive control of females in our society: “I hate you”; “You’re not worthy of my love”; “Your children hate you”; “Are you still alive?” We know what that does to people and what it drives them to do. It controls them and creates a very ugly environment for them to live in. That type of abuse is all too prevalent in our society. The elderly are similarly abused: “Mum had a good life, you know”; “You know, they’re done, really”; “It’s going to be very costly to keep them in this health service.” All that pressure builds.”

All this shows the need to ask probing questions about why specific people request assisted suicide. Have they been bullied over time by those who would prefer them dead?

Is Parliament ‘about to catch up on public opinion’?

This is a key reason for being sceptical of MPs who say their support for changing the law merely catches up with public opinion. Much was made in the debate of the claim that most people in Britain today support changing the law. Paul Blomfield (Labour) said:

“I believe that we are finally on the brink of catching up with public opinion and bringing about law change—not in this Parliament, but in the next.”

He said this as part of a speech on the recent report of the Health and Social Care Committee of the House of Commons on the topic. The committee had looked at policies in different countries. How accurate is the claim that public opinion supports changing the law?

Understanding public opinion

Fiona Bruce (Conservative) revealed the problem with this claim. First, she cited a 2021 Survation poll which found people did not understand what ‘assisted dying’ means.

“Only four in 10 correctly understood it to mean providing lethal drugs to those with less than six months to live to end their life. The same proportion incorrectly thought that it meant giving people who are dying the right to stop life-prolonging treatment, which is already legal in the UK. Worryingly, one in 10 said that the term referred to the provision of hospice-type care for people who are dying. So six in 10 people did not understand what “assisted dying” actually means.”

She then weighed in on a recent poll by Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for legal change.

“Let us consider a recent Dignity in Dying poll, which concluded that 75% of Brits supported assisted dying. That had fallen from 84% in a 2019 Populus poll. But how strong is the supposed support? That recent poll found that only four in 10 of those polled wanted their MP to vote in favour of assisted dying. It seems that out of the initial 75%, almost half did not support the cause enough to want the law to change. To proclaim that nearly eight in 10 Brits want assisted dying cannot be accepted as a fair representation.”

This shows the importance of continuous public engagement and apologetics on end-of-life issues. Support for assisted suicide and euthanasia is superficial at best; we have real opportunities to shift the tide.

Which doctors support changing the law?

Assisted suicide campaigners make much of the fact that the British Medical Association has changed its stance to be neutral. However, Jim Shannon (DUP) pointed out that the doctors in the BMA who favoured changing the law do not work with end-of-life patients. BMA members who do voted against changing its stance from opposition to neutrality.

Danny Kruger (Conservative) was more forthright – these are the doctors who “know what we are talking about.”

Assisted suicide increases suicide overall

Danny Kruger went on to point out that that suicide rates go up when assisted suicide is legalised.

Nick Fletcher (Conservative) pointed out a particularly disturbing instance of how a change in the law. He cited the case of Shanti Di Corte, a victim of the Brussels airport terror attack in 2016, who was killed by assisted suicide due to suffering from PTSD.

She was only 23 years old.

What this suggests is that some of the most vulnerable people in society give up hope altogether if assisted suicide is legal. In several countries, legality has led to the criteria for assisted suicide being widened to people who have mental health problems.

The importance of truthfulness in public debate

When we review Monday’s debate, we see that those MPs proposing that the law should be changed painted a simplistic and misleading picture of why.

They frequently resorted to claims rather than arguments, at times making a change in the law appear inevitable. They stooped to claiming that public opinion supports change. These MPs were wrong on each count. Opponents, who were typically Christians, managed to counter these claims and the pretentions accompanying them with a more accurate and complex picture of the realities involved.

This is an essential responsibility of Christians every time the case for changing the law to allow assisted suicide is made.

But it is not enough to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia solely because of where it leads. As Nick Fletcher helpfully said:

“I cannot support a policy that takes life, because life is God-given and precious.”

Even if the motivation is solely to relieve real, intense suffering, euthanasia is still wrong. We simply don’t have God’s permission to take the life of those made in his image in this way.

Let’s pray that MPs become more aware, and more truthful about, all the effects of what happens when we open the door to assisted suicide and euthanasia.

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