Assisted Dying

Thank you for contacting me about assisted dying.

Coping with terminal illness is distressing and difficult both for patients and their families; the focus must, of course, be on the alleviation of pain and on promoting the research that will, in time, prevent or cure the conditions that cause so much suffering. 

Traditionally, this is an issue on which each MP is able to take his or her own view and vote according to conscience.

Assisting or encouraging suicide is a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 for which the maximum penalty is 14 years’ imprisonment. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) published guidelines primarily concerned with advising the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutors about the factors which they need to consider when deciding whether it is in the public interest to prosecute a person for assisting or encouraging another to commit suicide.

The House of Commons has discussed the DPP’s guidelines and these were unanimously commended as being a compassionate and measured way of dealing with one of the most emotionally-charged crimes in the statute book.

The DPP further clarified the CPS Policy on the likelihood of prosecution of health care professionals, to specify that the relationship of care will be the important aspect to be considered and it will be necessary to consider whether the suspect may have been in a position to exert some influence on the patient.

I believe the application of the law should be flexible enough to distinguish the facts and the circumstances of one case from another. To this end, the DPP’s policy offers important and sensitive guidance.

I fully accept that suicide, assisting or encouraging suicide, assisted dying and euthanasia are all subjects on which it is entirely possible for people to hold widely different but defensible opinions. This is why the substance of the law in this area is not a matter of party politics but of conscience, and any vote would be a free one should more proposals to alter the law in this area come to Parliament.

Everyone would agree that terminally ill patients should receive the highest quality palliative support and end-of-life care, and that they and their families should be certain that their end-of-life care will meet all of their needs. With that in mind I welcome the Department of Health’s End of Life Care Strategy which is intended to improve access to good quality palliative care and encourage the Government further to develop specialist palliative care and hospice provision.

I accept that there are imperfections in and problems with the current law, but I think that these can be dealt with sensitively and sensibly without having a new law that decriminalises assisted dying. I have a number of concerns about such proposals:

Given the progress made in so many areas of medical care and research, it seems to me realistic to suggest that better terminal care and palliative care service development are what is needed rather than assisted dying. Bearing in mind the increasing awareness of mental health issues in all areas of life, I have no doubt that more work will and needs to be done too on the emotional and mental health support that people with life-limiting illnesses need. I believe the fundamental assumption of any society must be that each person's life shall be afforded equal protection and that we should do what we can to prevent or alleviate the situations that make life intolerable; I worry that moves towards decriminalising assisted dying would have the unintended consequence of weakening this assumption.

A further anxiety is that some people who are vulnerable for all sorts of reasons might perceive themselves to be a ‘burden’ to others and this becomes the main factor in their requesting assisted dying. 

The present situation allows for considerable discretion on the part of law enforcement agencies, of which they make considerable use, while affording a powerful measure of protection as and when needed. I know we will agree that the lives of the terminally ill and the frail are of equal value to anyone else’s and that they deserve equal protection under the criminal law.

I do appreciate that this might not be the answer you were hoping for. The debate will continue, I’m sure, as it should, and people of goodwill on both sides will continue to differ. 

Thank you, once again, for taking the time to contact me.

Craig Whittaker MP

November 2018