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Parliament Must Reject Assisted Dying, and Embrace Better End-of-Life Care

02/09/2015 08:03 BST | Updated 01/09/2016 10:59 BST

The lobby for assisted suicide has had many advantages on its side - not least money and celebrity backers. One thing it no longer has however, on a global level, is momentum.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Parliament voted down an assisted dying bill. Last year, the Welsh Assembly rejected a similar motion. Twenty-five attempts to introduce assisted suicide in U.S. States in the past year have been tried, and all have failed. In the most recent case last month, the Californian State Assembly saw the failure of Bill 'SB 128'. The proposal lost steam and was withdrawn in the face of opposition from Assembly Democrats, following public outcry.

SB 128 was based on the physician-assisted suicide statute that operates in Oregon, under which terminally ill patients can request to be provided with lethal drugs to take their own lives. This is the same legislation on which Rob Marris' assisted suicide Bill (to be debated in the House of Commons in a few weeks) is modelled.

Like the Marris proposals, the Californian legislation purports to be restricted to patients prognosed as having less than six months to live, and required two doctors to determine that they were mentally competent and had a "clear, settled, voluntary" wish to die. This shares the same pretence of "safeguards". As any end of life specialist will attest, prognoses of death at six months are impossible to make with anything remotely approaching certainty. As Dr Illora Finlay, Professor of Palliative Medicine and immediate former President of the Royal Society of Medicine, put it, 'the only honest answer' when asked about a patient's life expectancy at a possible distance of six months is 'I honestly can't tell.' Trusting people's lives to this sort of guesswork would inevitably lead to ill people's lives being ended prematurely, when (as has happened in innumerable cases) they could have lived full lives for years or even decades longer than expected.

Due to this and other flaws innate to any assisted suicide proposal, concerns were raised from the disabled community, and the elderly. That is: those who are most vulnerable to medical discrimination and pressure to commit suicide. Groups such as Disability Rights California reported their concern that depression, incorrect prognoses, and the influence of unscrupulous relatives may lead people to end their lives who have serious disabilities but otherwise want to live.

For the same reasons, in the UK all the leading disability and elderly campaigning groups - Scope, Disability Rights UK, the British Geriatric Society, and others - oppose assisted suicide. As do the Royal Colleges of Physicians, General Practitioners and Surgeons, and the British Medical Association, which recently rejected motions to adopt a neutral position on this subject.

Liz Carr, the Silent Witness actor who has campaigned alongside other disabled people against assisted dying for years, puts it this way: "if the Assisted Dying Bill passes, some people's lives will be ended without their consent, through mistakes and abuse...Against a [NHS] backdrop of longer shifts, difficulty in obtaining appointments and the rationing of certain treatments, should we really be pushing further pressures onto our reluctant doctors?" Those campaigning seem to have no answers to these questions, or to the fact that a change in the law would put so, so many elderly, frail and disabled people in danger.

Like legislators abroad, many Parliamentarians recognise that assisted suicide (including the model proposed by Marris) poses a profound danger to the most vulnerable members of our society. The NHS has developed the best palliative care system in the world - though one which still needs significantly more support - and the Government must ensure that the best care and support is available in every area, to every person, so that the UK remains an exemplar of care and compassion to those most in need of it.

Doctors, disabled rights activists, and parliaments around the world have all rejected this step, embracing better end-of-life care. The UK Parliament must do the same.

Rob Flello is the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South