At their party conference on Sunday, Liberal Democrats will debate a call for a right-to-die law to be introduced in Britain - Chris Davies MEP sets out the case
Tears ran down the face of British citizen Tony Nicklinson when he heard that High Court judges had refused his plea for doctors to be allowed to help him to die. The decision meant that the life described as a "living nightmare", by the 58 year old victim of locked-in syndrome, would continue against his will. The judges insisted that it was for parliament, not for them, to decide whether the 1961 Suicide Act should be changed. But when will MPs in the United Kingdom grasp the nettle?
Some 200 British people, all suffering unendurably and with no hope of recovery, have now travelled to Switzerland to secure medical assistance to die with the aid of the Dignitas organisation. Every month, others make the same final journey - their fears reduced by the publication in 2010 of the Director of Public Prosecution's guidelines that indicate how unlikely it is that anyone who provides them with help will risk arrest, so long as they have acted from selfless motives. By default, the Switzerland option has become de-facto British policy on medically assisted dying. But it is shameful that we deny people in such circumstances the right to be helped to die in their own country, with their loved ones around.
The British Social Attitudes survey found in 2010 that 82 per cent of respondents believe that a doctor should probably, or definitely, be allowed to end the life of a patient with a painful incurable disease - at their request. Yet, despite such public support, a minority of people with particular religious or ethical views have successfully frustrated attempts to bring about reform. The motives of these opponents may be compassionate but their actions are cruel. To force people suffering unendurably to stay alive against their will is a form of torture.
The only valid argument for resisting change is to protect society. The fear exists that the elderly and disabled could become obliged to seek death rather than be a burden on others. However, right-to-die legislation exists in Belgium and the Netherlands. It includes effective safeguards that prevent abuse. It has close to 90 per cent of public support.
Palliative care is good in these countries and is the preferred option for the vast majority of terminally ill patients. The proportion of people seeking assistance to die remains around just 2 per cent of all deaths. The majority have terminal cancer and may be within days or weeks of death, but many are middle aged rather than old; they tend to be well-educated, strong willed individuals determined to triumph over their disease by choosing for themselves their time to die. The knowledge that an escape from suffering is available helps many sustain life past the point when it might otherwise be unbearable.
On Sunday, at our party conference in Brighton, Liberal Democrats will debate a call for legislation on medically assisted dying to be considered by parliament. If the British government will not itself introduce a bill then coalition ministers should at least pledge to make parliamentary time available for full consideration of a private member's initiative.
Many Liberal Democrats will regard this as very much a matter of human rights and it is appropriate that we should take a lead. In this, we will be treading in the footsteps of colleagues elsewhere in Europe who have played a prominent role in bringing about reform. The Belgian right-to-die legislation is on the statute book thanks in part to former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, now leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament. Dutch legislation on voluntary euthanasia was shaped by a D66 minister with support from the VVD. These Liberals recognised the need for political initiative and saw the argument in liberal terms, the importance of respecting the wishes of individuals in the most distressing circumstances.
Tony Nicklinson has since achieved his wish but the issue is not going to go away with his death. Until reform is achieved, there will be a steady flow of individuals experiencing the most terrible suffering - who demand the right of choice and who seek medical assistance to end their lives. The time is long overdue for parliament to respect their wishes.
Chris Davies is a Liberal Democrat MEP and author of the pamphlet Our Right to Die - lessons for Britain from the European experience