Margaret Jay: The gravely ill deserve better than old Nazi scare stories

She decided to die at a time of her choosing, with dignity
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On January 24 Dr Anne Turner, a retired GP, died in a Swiss clinic having taken a medically prescribed lethal cocktail of drugs. In other words, she was professionally helped to commit suicide. She said she had been forced by our laws to die in a strange country far from her home. Turner suffered from an irreversible neurological illness, and didn't want to end her days unable to walk, talk, swallow or even blink. She decided instead to die at a time of her choosing, with dignity and with the support of her family.

Until this week, I hoped we were making progress to help people such asTurner to have the option of assisted suicide under UK law. Sadly, last Friday, the House of Lords struck down a Bill introduced by the human rights lawyer Joel Joffe to make it possible. I have been working with Lord Joffe for three years on his reform and believe the Lords made a profoundly wrong decision. The proposed Bill was deliberately limited. We wanted to avoid accusations of introducing euthanasia by the back door, although this didn't stop opponents, especially from the churches, questioning Lord Joffe's motives with abusive personal attacks.

The reform Bill was modelled on the Death With Dignity Act in the US state of Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide has been legal for eight years. Lord Joffe and I, with a group of colleagues, visited Oregon and took a close look at the US experience. We found no significant problems with the law among patients, doctors, nurses, politicians and regulators. To quote the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners: "There is very little negative feeling. Many people feel it is very, very beneficial for patients."

In the UK, arguments against introducing any form of assisted dying are usually rooted in the fear it will lead to uncontrolled euthanasia. In Oregon, the numbers of people choosing assisted suicide have remained low and stable. Out of about 30,000 deaths each year there were 38 assisted suicides in 2002, 42 in 2003, 37 in 2004 and 38 in 2005.

Opponents of change in Britain also assert that palliative care for the terminally ill solves all problems and will be undermined if assisted suicide becomes law. In Oregon, the opposite was true. The director of the state Hospice Association told us the quality of end-of-life care has improved since the Act. Every Oregonian now has access to Hospice care, and last year the state was named "the best place to die in America".

The Oregon experience persuaded the majority of peers on a Lords Select Committee on the subject to support Lord Joffe's similar proposal for Britain. So why did the Bill fail? Primarily, because of an extraordinary campaign by the churches. There were more bishops present in the Lords last Friday than at any time since the Sunday trading reform of the mid-1990s.

In the House, the religious leaders argued their case with reason. But their supporters have been scare-mongering. Last month, The Catholic Times accompanied a negative piece on the Bill with a picture of children killed in Nazi medical experiments. These tactics worked.

But this is a short-term victory. We live in a mainly secular society. Every reputable opinion survey shows 80 per cent of the public support change, and more and more people like Anne Turner are making their voices heard. They are determined to control their end-of-life options, to maintain autonomy and dignity until the end. None of the religious bodies or palliative-care specialists offer them an answer, and work will go on to give them the choice they want.

Baroness Jay was the Labour leader in the House of Lords

Comments