MPs could stop widespread suffering at the end of life – why don’t they?

20 December 2023, 14:00

Why are even our national treasures forced to agonise like this?
Why are even our national treasures forced to agonise like this? Picture: Alamy

By Dr Graham Winyard CBE

The barbarity of our outdated law on assisted dying is again in the spotlight.

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Dame Esther Rantzen, currently undergoing treatment for stage four lung cancer, has announced that she has joined Dignitas and may flee her own country to have the dignified death she wants. Avengers and Game of Thrones star Diana Rigg made headlines with an impassioned case to legalise assisted dying in a message recorded shortly before her death.

Why are even our national treasures forced to agonise like this?

We look to MPs to protect us from bad laws, and the inquiry into assisted dying being carried out by the Health and Social Care Committee should be an opportunity for Parliament to show a cynical public that it can work actively and effectively on our behalf. Assisted dying is an issue where public opinion is very clear. More than 80% of us believe that the law should be changed to allow people who are suffering intolerably and cannot be effectively helped, to receive assistance to bring our lives to an end. Yet the committee has moved slowly, while the avoidable suffering of dying people continues.

At least the Committee looked at Switzerland, where assisted dying has been legal for more than 80 years and retains popular support. Switzerland is a civilised society where the vulnerable are respected and cared for and where good palliative medicine services thrive. Assisted deaths only comprise less than 2% of all deaths. The Swiss are at ease with their law.

Legalising assisted dying is a serious matter but Parliament’s inaction over the years has serious consequences. If a Swiss-style law was in place across the UK, every year 10,000 of our fellow citizens would choose an assisted death. They would choose to bring their lives to a dignified end because their suffering could not be controlled by modern medicine. This equates to 15 of every MP's constituents, year in, year out. The public believes that people should have this choice but Parliament, to date, overrules us. The real coercion here is that MPs are forcing their constituents and their families to suffer.

80 years of Swiss experience show that we could change the law safely, and do it now. Can MPs really maintain their resistance to change; can they look their own constituents in the eye and tell them that they must continue to suffer because MPs know best?

Dr Graham Winyard CBE was the medical director of the NHS from 1993 to 1998. He currently co-chairs the clinical advisory group of the assisted dying advocacy organisation My Death, My Decision.