Law around assisted dying ‘such a mess’ and needs reform, parliamentary inquiry hears

Better-funded palliative care will never be able to eliminate unbearable suffering for everyone, the first session of a parliamentary inquiry into assisted dying has heard.

The current law was described as “a mess” by Labour former lord chancellor and justice secretary Lord Falconer, who attempted to legalise euthanasia through a backbench Bill in 2013.

But Baroness Hollins told the Health and Social Care Committee of her concerns around the “unintended consequences” of any change in the law, as she called for better “death education” in society whereby the end of life is talked about more openly.

The committee is considering what can be drawn in evidence from jurisdictions where assisted dying or assisted suicide is legal and whether there have been any new developments since the House of Commons last considered legislation on the subject in 2015.

After the launch of the inquiry in December, the committee said it had received a many submissions from the public and organisations.

Conservative chairman Steve Brine opened the two-hour hearing on Tuesday by acknowledging it is an “incredibly sensitive” subject.

He said: “Some people feel incredibly strongly about there being the need for a change in the law.

“Some people feel incredibly strongly that there shouldn’t be a change in the law and many people are obviously well aware that there is a debate raging on the subject and have not picked a position on this and may never do so.

“Our purpose is to look at all of the issues and the evidence and to do so as we always try to do in as most sensitive a way as we can possibly.”

Lord Falconer (pictured) said he feels it is “absolutely clear that improving palliative care will not resolve the needs of some people to end their life in the context of a terminal illness, earlier”.

He said: “It’s such a mess, the law now. We will allow people to go to Switzerland, we will allow people to be helped to go to Switzerland, we will investigate their loved ones when they come back, which is a hellish experience.

“The law is such a mess and I don’t think I’ve met anybody who doesn’t think that, and the law itself recognises that.

“I think it’s time for a change.”

Crossbench peer Baroness Hollins, said that as a doctor, psychiatrist and legislator, she is “very worried about the unintended consequences”.

She said she did not believe any country had managed to come with a law “which actually protects people who find themselves in vulnerable situations”, adding that physician-assisted suicide “is not proven to be safe, essentially”.

She argued that there is not “adequate death education in our society”, but rather there is a fear in talking about death.

She told the committee: “For me, I would like to see a much more accepting conversation about death, which is an acceptance that this is something that is going to happen to all of us.

“It’s a normal process.

“And the more we talk about it, the more there is a possibility that people will get the help they need when they’re dying, so that they can die in comfort, with family and friends around them without all the anxiety that goes around assisted suicide.”

Under the Suicide Act 1961, helping someone to take their own life is punishable with up to 14 years in prison.

Figures published earlier this year showed that the number of British people who are members of Dignitas has soared by more than 80% in the past decade and that a total of 33 people from the UK had an assisted death at Dignitas in 2022, a rise from 23 people the previous year.

Baroness Meacher was asked by the committee whether advances in medicine could address the fundamental issue about having a “good death”.

The crossbench peer told MPs: “All the evidence that I have seen, and I’ve seen a lot of it, suggests that we all want better-funded palliative care, but that that will never be able to eliminate unbearable suffering for everyone.

“Yes, for the majority of people that is so, but there will always be a minority of people who will suffer unbearably in the ways that I have indicated, obviously uncontrollable physical pain is just one of those those forms of unbearable suffering.”

But Baroness Finlay, crossbench peer and professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University School of Medicine, insisted “we can manage death better” as she raised concerns about how the situation is handled in other jurisdictions.

She suggested “diagnostic error is quite common”, adding: “There have been cases in Canada of people who had euthanasia but actually never had the illness that they were thought to have.”

She cited evidence from the Royal College of Pathologists which she said showed “one in 20 post mortems show that there’s been a diagnostic error in this country”.

She cautioned that the key point is listening to the patient and ensuring they are not being pressured into doing something they do not want to do.

She said: “It is about listening to what people want and weighing in the balance the harms against the benefits with the patient and listening to what they want, and detecting pressures on them.

“Because we mustn’t forget about coercive pressures and we mustn’t forget about abuse.”

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