Why I voted against the Assisted Dying Bill

By Steve McCabe MP

On Friday 11th September over 450 MPs attended the House of Commons for the debate on the Private Member’s, Assisted Dying (No2) Bill sponsored by my parliamentary colleague Rob Marris, the Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South West. This was the fourth attempt to introduce such legislation since 2006 and was largely modelled on the Bill which Lord Falconer attempted to put through in the last parliament but which ran out of time because of the large number of amendments introduced by members of the House of Lords. There was a pressing need for parliament to decide this matter after the Supreme Court decided in 2012, in the case of Tony Nicklinson, that there is an incompatibility between our current law and fundamental human rights but that Parliament rather than the courts should resolve the problem.

 

I recognised from the day that the result of the Private Member’s Ballot was announced that this was one of those issues where there was no hiding place and that whatever I did, I would succeed in satisfying one group of constituents and upsetting another. That is the way of things on issues which are a matter of conscience and rightly arouse strong feelings in the public mind. I was never under any illusions that I alone had to make the decision but I did my best to hear from as many constituents as possible. I considered the views of everyone who contacted me of their own volition. I conducted a postal and an email survey and I read widely on the issue and attended a parliamentary briefing.

It is difficult not to have huge sympathy for those people and their loved ones who find themselves with a terminal, degenerative condition. I confess I started out thinking that I would support the Assisted Dying Bill.

 

My surveys led to different conclusions; the postal survey coming out at 60/40 against the legislation and the email survey showing almost the reverse position. If nothing else this has confirmed my view that I shouldn’t rely solely on a postal or email survey but, where possible, should consult widely in as many ways as I can. One very striking feature of the responses was the concern that any legislation should have proper safeguards. This view was equally strongly expressed by those who supported the idea.

 

A recurring concern was the fear that a ‘right to die’ might translate into ‘a duty to die’. This view was widely shared by many who took part in the debate and a particular aspect of this fear was expressed in relation to the elderly and those with disabilities. Large numbers of the medical profession, including the BMA, also opposed the legislation; a particular concern was the fact that the legislation should apply to those who had been deemed to have six months to live. Rob Marris acknowledged (although this was on the face of the Bill) how imprecise such a diagnosis is and how even for the doctor who countersigns the request it can be no more than a best professional guess.

 

As the debate progressed, I became increasingly concerned that the Bill didn’t actually contain sufficient safeguards. Clause 8 of the Bill allowed for the Secretary of State to issue a number of Codes of Practice designed to cover issues such as: a person’s capacity to make such a clear, settled and voluntary decision; the likely impact of depression or other psychological  disorders to impair such decision making; availability  of information on treatment, palliative care and end of life options; appropriate counselling and guidance; and arrangements  for making available the drugs used for an assisted death. Since these Codes of Practice cover many of the safeguards which people see as necessary but wouldn’t be available before the Bill became law and are not mandatory, I don’t feel that in all conscience I could have voted for the Bill. I am aware of the argument that the Second Reading tends to be a vote in principle and that detailed amendments should be pursued during the committee stage (an argument that few people accepted with regard to the Welfare Reform Bill) but this is a Private Member’s Bill and parliamentary time for such a Bill is very limited. Consequently I remain very sceptical that it could have been amended sufficiently for it to address many of the concerns about safeguards. Consequently I decided to vote against.

 

I oppose euthanasia but I have enormous sympathy and respect for those who campaign for the right for assisted dying.  I don’t rule out being persuaded to support such a measure in the future but I feel I’d want to be much more certain about the nature of the safeguards and would prefer to see them spelt out on the face of the Bill.

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