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Minister backs 'assisted dying' bid

Care minister Norman Lamb has backed moves to legalise “assisted dying”.

The Liberal Democrat said he would vote in favour of allowing terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to choose to be helped to kill themselves.

Legislation has been drawn up by Labour former lord chancellor Lord Falconer of Thoroton and MPs would be allowed a free vote on the issue if it is debated in the House of Commons.

Several previous attempts to legislate on the issue have failed and both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have said they personally oppose such a change.

But Mr Lamb said that there appeared to be “quite widespread public support” for ending what was a “cruel” system that left relatives unsure if they would be prosecuted.

Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, technically punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Guidelines issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2010 after one high-profile case indicated that anyone acting with compassion on the will of a dying person was unlikely to face criminal charges.

That has been the case in around 90 such deaths examined by prosecutors since then.

Critics - including doctors, disability campaigners and churches - warn that a formal change in the law would leave people vulnerable to pressure from family and others to end their lives.

The issue has split the House of Lords in recent debates, with the severely-disabled Baroness Campbell of Surbiton among those warning of the dangers.

“It is not only dangerous for those who may see suicide as their only option, it can also be tempting for those who would benefit from their action,” she told peers.

Former Commons speaker Baroness Boothroyd insisted however that it was vital to change a system that added “cruelly to the suffering of people who want to die with dignity”.

Mr Lamb said that his own conversations with terminally-ill patients had swung his opinion in favour of legalisation which included sufficient safeguards.

“What an invidious situation to leave people in,” he told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News.

“Can we really be comfortable with a situation where people, acting out of compassion for a loved one who is dying, are left uncertain as to whether they will face prosecution?

“There need to be proper safeguards - that’s critically important,” he added.

“You have absolutely got to guard against relatives or others seeking to get control of the estate. We have to be certain that it is an individual decision.

“I think you can meet those safeguards.”

Under Lord Falconer’s proposals, two doctors would have to sign off the fatal dose.

Liberal Democrat activists have previously voted in favour of such legislation.

Mr Lamb sad it remained “very hard to judge” whether it would be supported in the Commons - with the Sunday Telegraph suggesting around a third of MPs are in favour, fewer opposed but 40% undecided.

No date has yet been set for Parliament to debate Lord Falconer’s private member’s bill.

MPs are traditionally freed from the constraints of party discipline on such issues and allowed to vote according to individual conscience.

Foreign secretary William Hague warned about the dangers of creating a “grey area” but indicated that he remained opened to be persuaded to reverse his previous opposition.

“I am always very concerned… that we don’t create some new grey area in the law that can be misused,” he told the programme.

“So I have always erred on that side of the argument but there are very strong and legitimate arguments in both directions.

“In past years I have voted against these proposals but we’ll see, I will look at it afresh, I will read the letters that come from my constituents and decide how to vote.”

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie told the programme he was “not yet convinced that there is a need to change the law”.

Readers' comments (19)

  • what about the staff who would be expected to take part? what if they disagree? surely it's not up to MPs to decide something that they are not going to be involved in.

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  • Which staff would be involved in this, needs thinking about: I don't think nurses should be routinely involved. And if Hague thinks end of life doesn't already have grey areas he isn't au fait with current behaviour.

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  • Well nurses who are against abortion aren't expected to take part in one so I'm sure this will be the same.

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  • shouldn't be external to hospitals and hc professionals as in Exit and Dignitas? that would mean no hc profis are put under pressure.

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  • michael stone

    I tend to be in favour of what I insist on calling Assisted Suicide - even if only during terminal illness, I think you need 'suicide' to be clear about who makes the decision (the patient and nobody else - 'dying' seems to muddy the waters). But it depends on the detail in the Bill/Act.

    However, there are plenty of other things around terminal illness and end-of-life that need sorting out, as a lot of it is currently an unsatisfactory dog's breakfast of muddle, conlfict and confusion.

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  • Everyone should have the right to end their own life if they so wish; however, I don't think anyone has the right to ask another to help them. Suicide is not illegal and those so minded to bring about their own end can do so now without a change in law.

    Assisted dying, is an absolute minefield in that you're attempting to legalise an illegal act (murder). I don't think medical professionals or the NHS should go anywhere near it as there is so much potential for abuse.

    I have no problem with private clinics offering similar services to those in Switzerland opening up provided that there are safeguards in place.

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  • Tiger Girl

    Anonymous | 10-Mar-2014 4:31 pm

    You write-

    Assisted dying, is an absolute minefield in that you're attempting to legalise an illegal act (murder).

    This potential legislation invariably only allows for someone to provide the necessary drugs for the patient to end his or her own life, with the patient then self-administering: that isn't murder, is it? These proposed acts are currently stopping short of including a solution for the awful situation of people such as Tony Nicklinson, who couldn't actually self-administer.

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  • Tiger Girl | 11-Mar-2014 11:47 am

    so who do you propose should administer? I may be wrong but I believe according to Swiss law, even clients of Exit and Dignitas have to self-administer.

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  • Yes But

    Anonymous | 11-Mar-2014 12:18 pm

    I suppose that it would in principle always be possible to create some type of technology, to allow any patient who could objectively communicate (even by eye movement) to self administer a terminal dose.

    But Tiger just pointed out that while the patient self administers, that isn't murder, is it?

    This debate always becomes very entrenched, very quickly. With the two sides seemingly totally unable to understand the others position.

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  • Yes But

    PS Just to be clear about my final sentence - that wasn't about any of the posts or posters here, it was an observation about what happens whenever assisted suicide/dying is debated anywhere.

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  • Yes But | 11-Mar-2014 2:53 pm

    I should hope not, otherwise I would have just assumed from these two comments you had got the wrong end of the stick. the questions were put to Tiger to answer.

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  • tinkerbell

    Having always been unsure about assisted dying my mind was made up by the Terry Pratchett documentary when he visited the dignitas clinic in Switzerland and witnessed the death of someone from England who had travelled their with his wife.

    People who are terminally ill should be allowed to die with dignity here or wherever their home country is, not have to fly to another country whilst still reasonably strong enough to make the journey and end their life before time.

    I didn't find anything dignified about that but truly, truly sad.

    If such clinics exist in this country there will be staff who will work in them as there are in other countries. No one should be forced to participate in something with which they do not morally or ethically agree. That would be the stuff of nightmares.

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  • Tiger Girl | 11-Mar-2014 11:47 am

    I hear what you're saying, but drugs prescribed with the sole purpose of bring about someone's death or accelerating their demise is murder or, at the very least, an act preparatory to murder.

    Legalising or attempting to legalise such acts is - as I wrote earlier - a minefield. You could legalise an 'executioner' type non-medical professional role, but that too would present a myriad of problems.

    It would be possible for someone who is prescribed a medicine for a nonlethal purpose e.g. Morphine to commit suicide using that substance with the use of technology e.g. a machine that recognises a persons 'blink' to confirm administration - a smart syringe driver if you will.

    Assisted death is just that I'm afraid, but with advances in technology, people will be able to commit suicide without having to involve others.

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  • Anonymous | 11-Mar-2014 8:14 pm

    the Dignitas and Exit websites explains how they work. It is not considered to be murder although obviously it is a highly controversial subject and meets with much resistance by many, not least to many of the Swiss, and especially those living in the regions where they operate who would like to see an end put to this type of 'tourism'.

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  • Anonymous | 11-Mar-2014 8:30 pm

    I'm not against similar clinics opening up here, but I just think that the legislation required would become so complex and there would have to be so many provisos, caveats and safeguards put in place that the person will probably have expired before a decision is made. Who would be qualified to make such a decision? Who would staff such clinics as it can't be any health professional as they're signatories of the Hippocratic oath - to do no harm.

    I think the way forward is to make your decision early and act while you're still have the required dexterity. Obviously, this will exclude many, but you're never ever going to get a one-fits-all solution to such a serious problem.

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  • Anonymous | 11-Mar-2014 8:58 pm

    I make no suggests that further branches of Dignitas or Exit open in the UK or elsewhere and it might well be that the UK would need to develop its own model if assisted suicide is to be a chosen course of action. I was merely pointing out these are the most reliable sources of factual information on how they function as some of the readers here seem to be very unclear. there is a difference between familiarising oneself with the facts and holding personal opinions on the subject with all of the practicalities, legality and ethics of the system from the point of view of both patients and those willing to assist them.

    It is to be noted that 'assisted suicide' carried out by healthcare professionals remains illegal in Switzerland as is, of course, euthanasia but the former is currently supported by these two independent bodies under certain and strictly controlled conditions which are periodically reviewed and recently put under pressure by the EU for further clarification of their laws.

    HUMAN RIGHTS RULING

    Swiss ordered to define assisted suicide laws

    http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Swiss_ordered_to_define_assisted_suicide_laws.html?cid=35816922

    http://www.patientsrightscouncil.org/site/switzerland/

    http://www.exitinternational.net/page/Switzerland

    http://www.dignitas.ch/index.php?lang=en

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  • Tiger Girl

    Anonymous | 11-Mar-2014 4:39 pm

    I refer you to the comments made by Yes But to save me from duplicating the same point.

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  • Trained to care, not kill. Giving meds to end life is murder, however you look at it and supposed legislation to limit who can use it, provide it, administer it, will be ignored and needless deaths will result.We have seen it with abortion! If a person IS near death, they need help to LIVE with dignity and have the best quality of life possible until they die. Medics and nurses have failed if they cant provide this help. Life should be better than death, (which is so final).

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  • I wish the public wouldn't confuse it with Euthanasia!

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