James Somerville-Meikle from the Catholic Union says we should challenge the Bill to show there's a better way to care for people nearing the end of their lives.
With the Assisted Dying Bill receiving its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Friday, 22 October, James Somerville-Meikle from the Catholic Union of Great Britain says we should challenge the Bill to show there’s a better way to care for people nearing the end of their lives.
We all remember the slogan. Stay at home – Protect the NHS – Save lives.
Keeping people alive became the central aim of the Government’s response to the pandemic.
It was used to justify three lockdowns in England which saw businesses pushed to the brink, loved ones kept apart, and countless hours of missed schooling for young people.
Extraordinary efforts were made to keep those most at risk from the virus safe. Clinically vulnerable people were asked to shield, people in care homes had visiting restricted, and Government Ministers went on television to tell us not to hug our grandparents.
We all made sacrifices to help keep others safe and bring this cruel virus under control.
It therefore seems extraordinary that having gone to so much effort to protect life over the past 18 months, the House of Lords will be debating a Bill to make it lawful to bring life to an end.
Crossbench peer, Baroness Meacher, came seventh in the private members ballot earlier this year – which gives backbench peers the opportunity to introduce legislation. A similar system operates in the House of Commons.
Baroness Meacher has chosen to introduce a Bill which would give terminally ill people – with less than six months to live – the opportunity to seek assistance in ending their lives.
The Assisted Dying Bill is similar to previous attempts to change the law in this area. The person seeking to end their life would need to show that this was their “voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish” and two medical practitioners would need to give their consent.
Such a change in law would doubtless be welcome by people in this country who wish to have a legal way of seeking help in ending their lives. But there are many others who risk losing out. The unintended consequences of this Bill are all too clear.
Determining the settled will of a person can be hard enough at the best of times, particularly on such an emotional and personal matter as this. And given that the General Medical Council has some 300,000 doctors on the UK medical register, finding two of them to agree hardly seems like an arduous task.
Besides the obvious problems with the safeguards proposed in the Bill, there is the broader question of whether the state should be in the business of telling society which people are able to end their lives – and on what basis.
I remember the first time I went to the House of Lords. I watched a debate led by Lord Falconer in 2009, which would have legalised helping people to travel overseas for euthanasia. I still remember the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as Baroness Campbell – a Labour peer with spinal muscular atrophy – spoke to a packed Lords Chamber from her wheelchair. She pointed out that under the proposed criteria set out by Lord Falconer, she would be eligible to seek euthanasia.
Assisted dying is considered a conscience vote in Parliament – meaning political parties have traditionally not whipped their MPs and peers to vote one way or the other. However, the Government has given a clear indication that it does not want to see the law changed in the way Baroness Meacher is proposing.
While the Bill will find some support in the House of Lords, it will likely run out of time sooner rather than later. Without Government support, it will be near impossible to get the legislation through all stages of the Lords and Commons by the end of this session of Parliament.
All of this of course will be known to Baroness Meacher. It is highly likely that what we are looking at is another noisy – but ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to change the law on assisted dying. But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Those who want to see the dignity of life upheld need to challenge this Bill and show there is a better way to care for people nearing the end of their life.
If we truly want to build back better from the pandemic, then we should be making it easier for people to live rather than die. The pandemic has given us a deeper appreciation of carers and the challenges faced by those who are seriously ill and clinically vulnerable. Channelling this experience into better care and support would be a far better legacy as we recover from Covid.
A good place to start would be making it easier for people to lead independent lives, in their own homes, for as long as possible. This means a focus on community carers and making our homes better suited to home care. This is something that was being considered by the previous Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP, and needs to be accelerated to make sure new build homes are easier to adapt for home care needs.
It also means speeding up plans for reform of social care. The Health and Care Levy announced last month will provide much needed funds to kickstart reform, but the task of reform goes far deeper than capping individual care costs. Pay and conditions for carers, regulation of the sector, and driving up standards all need to be included as part of the reform agenda.
Crucially, we need to improve palliative care in this country – including what people are able to access on the NHS. The Chancellor provided an additional £125 million for hospices as part of the Spring Budget this year, which was very welcome, but a more long-term funding agreement is needed. We also need the various palliative care services to work better together. A palliative care strategy has been mooted by the Government and would certainly be welcome.
There is a way of building back better from the pandemic for people with serious illnesses, but Baroness Meacher’s Bill is not the answer. Those who want to see the dignity of life upheld need to put forward an alternative vision of a society that supports those with terminal illness.
If the past 18 months have not given us a greater appreciation of the dignity of life, then nothing will.
James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain – a membership organisation dedicated to the defence of Catholic values in Parliament and public life, and the promotion of the common good.