Kit Malthouse is MP for North-West Hampshire.
It wasn’t long after I became an MP that a former Chairman of my local Conservative Association travelled to Switzerland to die. She had a terminal, incurable neurodegenerative disease, and chose an assisted death abroad rather than a terrifying, traumatic and protracted death from respiratory failure in the UK.
Although I hear similar heart-breaking stories too often, I am aware this is only a glimpse of a deep well of national anguish. It is impossible to know how many other dying people in my constituency have taken their own lives at home, traumatically, without the support of their doctors, and it is certain that many more have suffered the misery of an agonising death with nowhere to turn.
The UK’s ban on assisted dying means that terminally ill people who want help to die have two options: to spend their last days travelling to a country where assisted dying is legal, or to stay here and suffer a painful and terrifying death.
The Supreme Court and the Crown Prosecution Service have told us repeatedly that the law is not fit for purpose. Moreover, polling conducted in November by Populus found that 79 per cent of Conservative voters support giving terminally ill, mentally competent adults with less than six months to live the right to choose an assisted death. Similarly, 71 per cent would want the option to choose an assisted death for themselves if they were terminally ill, and 74 per cent of Conservative voters want their MP to support a change in the law. Clearly, the vast majority of people think it is obvious that the law needs to change, with support particularly strong among Conservative voters.
And yet MPs ignore all this.
As a direct result people die earlier than they need to, fearful that they won’t be fit enough to make it to Switzerland later, friends and family are forced to choose between love and cruel denial under threat of prosecution and the certainty of investigation, and thousands who cannot afford to travel suffer horribly as their loved ones stand by and watch in distress. As an important report from Dignity in Dying last month showed, at an average cost of £10,000 the option of travelling abroad is not available to the vast majority of people.
Even with the UK’s world-class palliative care, too many terminally ill people are denied the opportunity for the ‘good death’ they want. The NHS aspires to put patients at the centre of decisions about their health and care, but the ban on assisted dying means it can’t always deliver when people need choice and control the most. And as many horrified family members will tell you after having witnessed its effects for themselves, even aggressive pain management will only get you so far.
Terminally ill people who want this right are not asking for much. They are merely requesting the right to make decisions about their own death, rather than have those choices made for them by MPs. They have accepted what the rest of us dread even contemplating: that the end of their lives is terrifyingly near, and ask only to decide for themselves where, when and how that death occurs. The right they seek is one each of us hopes we will never have to use. But I for one would like the option, as would the vast majority of my fellow Conservative voters, and indeed most of my countrymen and women. My life, my death, my choice.
This is why I am supporting Conservatives for Choice at the End of Life, a new group backed from every wing of our party that will work to make a Conservative case for a change in the law on assisted dying.
The change we support would allow terminally ill adults with less than six months to live the right to choose an assisted death, within a strict set of safeguards. They would need to be mentally competent, have a clear and settled intention to end their own life, and be able to demonstrate that their decision to choose an assisted death was reached voluntarily, on an informed basis, without coercion or duress. The request for an assisted death would also need to be approved by two doctors acting independently from one another, and a High Court judge would be required to agree that all the safeguards had been met.
These arrangements are modelled on laws that have been proven to work safely and effectively in several US states (Oregon, California, Colorado, Vermont, Washington, and Washington DC) as well as in Canada. The Australian state of Victoria passed a similar assisted dying law just last month.
Conservatives believe in giving people choice and control over their lives. The end of life shouldn’t be any different. The evidence that we need change is overwhelming. I would urge my fellow Conservatives to ask their MPs to seize the opportunity to give a small number of terminally ill people the freedom to make the most basic choice they will ever need.