Over the weekend the ground has shifted on the issue of assisted dying for terminally ill people. Historically, opponents to change have argued that the seeming monolithic opposition from medics, disabled groups and religious groups trumps the views of the public, of which every opinion poll shows a large majority in favour. The reason it appeared that disabled people, healthcare professionals and people of faith were opposed to a change in the law was that leaders of these groups were unfairly misrepresenting the majority. In fact 62% people with faith support change, 79% of disabled people support assistance to die for dying adults, and whilst doctors are divided on the issue, a majority of doctors believe that their professionals should be neutral on the issue
This weekend, following support from senior medic John Ashton and a BMJ editorial backing the Bill the week before, we saw senior figures from the church redress this imbalance. First former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey said 'It is a shameful blot on our country's great reputation for caring for others that we have not come up with a better alternative than the Zurich clinic.', the following day Desmond Tutu said 'I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying.' and then the current Bishop of Buckingham put his head above the parapet and said 'I have come to support assisted dying, not assisted suicide, precisely because I do believe strongly in the sanctity of life... Part of honouring this is respecting people's integrity to make decisions about themselves.'
This Friday these issues will be discussed at length in the House of Lords. Lord Falconer will present his Assisted Dying Bill, which makes provision for terminally ill mentally competent adults to be able to choose an assisted death that they would self-administer. There are a record number of speakers and on Friday the Bill will either go through to Committee Stage to be debated clause by clause, or it will be voted down by a wrecking amendment should opponents see fit to table one.
The Supreme Court, when ruling on a number of 'right to die' cases a few weeks ago put Parliament on notice to address the inconsistencies with the law on this area. Their ruling rightly pointed out that the place for making new laws is Parliament, but they did make it clear that if Parliament fails to act then they may have to.
There is a real need to address this issue now. Hundreds of people each year are suffering needlessly and against their wishes at the end of life, and many thousands more are fearing a potentially horrible death, wishing they knew that they could have control over their end should they be one of the unfortunate minority for whom palliative care cannot relieve their suffering. Most people won't need to choose an assisted death, but many will gain huge comfort from knowing the choice exists.
My hope for this Friday is that Parliament will turn their attention to how the law could better support dying people to have the death they would choose. They owe it to the memories of those like Diane Pretty and Geraldine McClelland who died fighting for a better death for themselves and for those who would follow them, and the many dying people who want to know that they have choice in how they die, given that their death is inevitable - many of whom will be demonstrating outside Parliament while the debate rages on inside.