Disabled MPs warn of danger of legalising assisted suicide


Two disabled MPs have spoken out strongly against any moves towards legalising assisted suicide.

The two Conservative MPs, Paul Maynard and Robert Halfon, spoke during a Commons debate this week, the first time MPs have discussed the issue in depth for more than 40 years.

They were debating a motion that welcomed the guidelines published in 2010 by the director of public prosecutions (DPP), Keir Starmer.

The guidance, which applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, lists the factors to be considered in deciding whether to charge someone with assisted suicide.

An analysis of the speeches made during the debate suggests that 27 of the MPs were opposed to legalising assisted suicide, while 19 were in favour.

Maynard told MPs that he “fundamentally” rejected any moves towards legalisation.

He said: “If we decide that our own lives are no longer ‘worth living’, we make it harder for a person with an identical condition, disability or prognosis to take a brave decision, to strike out and say, ‘Actually, I want to keep on living. I do not want to succumb to the group-think that says I am now a burden on society.’

“It is not for society to decide the value of human life. It is not even for one single individual to decide that their life is no longer worth living, because by doing so they diminish the right of every other human being to decide that their life is worth living.”

Halfon said he believed society should “put everything into helping people to live, not helping people to die”.

He argued that influential research in early 1920s Germany that “argued strenuously that doctors should be protected against prosecution for assisted dying” helped create the “intellectual climate” that allowed the removal of support for terminally-ill and disabled people, and later led to Hitler’s programme of targeted mass killing of disabled people.

The Conservative MP Fiona Bruce quoted the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who believes that legalisation would “alter the mindset of the medical and social care professions, persuading more and more people that actually the prospect of an ‘easy’ way out is what people such as me really want”.

The Labour MP Jim Dobbin, who has two disabled grandsons, said: “I do not want them, or any other person living with a disability, to experience pressure in a system whose law suggests that their lives might not be worth living.”

Edward Garnier, the Conservative solicitor-general, also spoke out against any change in the law, and calls from some MPs to place the DPP’s guidance on a statutory basis.

He said: “I want to emphasise the importance of the independence of prosecutors and the undesirability of statutory guidelines for prosecutors in any area of law, not least this one.”

Another Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, said there were many disabled people who – if the law was changed – would “suddenly feel very vulnerable, because they could imagine a point in time when they are aware of what they cost the NHS, the state or wherever they are being cared for”.

The Labour MP Frank Field said he did not share the view that the country was “populated exclusively by husbands who love their wives, and wives who love their husbands”.

He said: “I know perfectly well that in certain circumstances some individuals would have no hesitation in trying to persuade a person that the decent thing to do is to end their life – and especially where money is involved.”

Many MPs also spoke out in favour of an amendment that called for further development of palliative care and hospice provision.

But some MPs did back moves towards legalising assisted suicide.

The Conservative MP Richard Ottaway, who proposed the original motion welcoming the guidelines, said: “Even if we can provide universal access to good-quality end-of-life care, some Britons will still seek to end their lives. The law must be equipped to deal with such cases and to help the vulnerable.”

The Labour MP Paul Blomfield told how his 87-year-old father had committed suicide last year after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

He said: “If the law had made it possible, he could, and I am sure he would, have shared his plans.

“He would have been able to say goodbye and to die with his family around him and not alone in a carbon monoxide-filled garage. He and many more like him deserved better.”

Another Labour MP, Paul Flynn, read out a letter from a constituent whose terminally-ill wife had deliberately starved herself to death.

He accused MPs of “cowardice” for not acting to legalise assisted suicide, and said: “Some 80 per cent of people in this country want us to change things.

“It is up to us, as their representatives, to bring in reforms that will give people the peace of mind that they can die with dignity.”

The Labour MP Dame Joan Ruddock, who also backs legalisation, had proposed an amendment calling for the DPP’s guidance to be placed on a statutory footing, but she did not ask for it to be put to a vote.

28 March 2012