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John Pugh MP writes…Why the Marris Bill on Assisted Dying failed

September 13, 2015 1:01 PM
By John Pugh MP in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

I voted against the Marris Bill and found the result and the debate strangely heartening even though it's an issue its hard to feel certain about. I will not rehearse the arguments presented but endeavour to offer a different explanation than offered by Norman Lamb for why the Marris Bill failed.

Firstly there was an implicit dishonesty in the proposal. No-one is against assisting the dying but if you arguing for assisted suicide you should call it that. Words, as George Orwell said, matter. Conflating state-facilitated suicide with care of the dying even if the former is appropriate conflates a distinction which is both morally and legally important.

This is not a pedantic point. Many horrors in this world like bombing civilians or gassing Jews have been masked by words like 'collateral damage' or 'final solution'. I do not think assisted suicide is of that order but let's use words precisely, truthfully.

The Bill called for assisted suicide only for those who were terminally ill, with 6 months to live with clear mental capacity. The proposers said that was all they wanted - yet repeatedly the bill supporters slipped into talking of and praying in aid other cases where people did not have a terminal disease and 6 months only to live. Keir Starmer the former DPP talked only of these cases.

It's not the actual irrelevance that I object to, it's when the same people arguing for the Marris Bill dispute the claim that we are on a slippery slope to further extension of the state's involvement in suicide. Such an approach is disingenuous, if not dishonest.

Personal stories of dying of relatives ,friends and constituents featured frequently in the debate and were used to argue for and against the proposal. The most rational approach, given that, is to listen most closely to those who have seen most of this - physicians, hospices etc. So far as I recall every medically qualified member of the Commons - and I commend the awe-inspiring contribution of Dr Phillipa Whitford (SNP) - was against the bill as are most professional bodies.

Troubling deaths is ultimately what concerns people on either side most, but there is a danger here that in a society that has very little direct experience of death and dying we resurrect the medieval concept of "death agony" as the norm. Death for the vast majority of citizens is a gradual closing. However, no-one denies death can be horrible for some.

There are at least two solutions society can adopt. Improve palliative care or assist suicide. In permitting the latter the Marris Bill is silent on the issue of whether the person assisted is likely to suffer a deeply distressing death (they must simply be terminally ill) and does not permit assistance to those who endure equal distress but have more than 6 months to endure.

What it does is give anyone at all with a life span of only 6 months help with suicide. On that proposal people divided depending on whether they worried about the social consequences of allowing that liberty or they thought axiomatically individuals have a right to such a service.

Norman Lamb for example claims that people have such a right. I see nothing obvious about such a claim and Norman offers little in the way of argument to convince me. The fact that a lot of the public agree with the sentiment probably indicates the same lack of reflection that convinces many that capital punishment is a good idea. Norman's view is not incidentally the majority view of current Lib Dem MPs

Norman rests his case on John Stuart Mill's classic, if confused, distinction between acts that impact on others and acts which concern only yourself - "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign".

One could see this position as the natural mindset of the consumerist, me-generation.

One could take the view that your death, your existence is just the individual's business, though in a party that has just witnessed the sad, troubling departure of a former leader, that's a view hard to sustain.

One cannot though without talking complete bunkum claim that in implicating government, the judicial system and the NHS in you death your request for suicide effects no-one else.

People may wish to think of a request for state run (or privately run) suicide assistance service as 'just their business' or perhaps as something that only impacts on other people benignly. I would think they were wrong on both counts.

What is dangerous is to claim there is some sort of inalienable,personal right to such a service. Demands, fair or not are not rights.

* John Pugh is the MP for Southport and is Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee for Health and Social Care

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