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Will MPs take the lead in the debate on euthanasia?

Posted on 15 July 2009 | 12:07pm

There is something very moving about the accounts of the deaths, together in a private Swiss clinic, of conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan, a former ballet dancer.

Though he was older by eleven years, and frail, it was she who was terminally ill, and their mutual assisted death clearly seen by them and their family as a last great act of love in a long and loving marriage spanning 54 years.

It is fitting also that the story emerged as Health Secretary Andy Burnham was setting out new proposals on long-term care, designed to meet the fact that more and more people are living longer and longer lives.

The proposals seem to make sense of that changing reality, and the new demographics which mean Brtitain now has more pensioners than children. It is another necessary reform of welfare state principles, and even though people might like to be able to get all the help they need, ‘from cradle to grave’, there is already a widespread understanding of the need to share the load between individuals, families, local communities and the State as a whole.

Just as we have reluctantly got used to the need for a mix of funding streams in further and higher education, including from the individual, so the same is happening in long-term care.

So the government proposals are out there, the Opposition will presumably develop their own, pressure groups and other interested parties will raise doubts and fresh ideas, and eventually changes in the law will come.

The euthanasia debate is rather different, but at some point is going to require government to take a fresh look, and MPs to take take a lead. It is already a fairly polarised debate, as is clear from some of the reactions yesterday, like Dominica Roberts, chairwoman of the Pro-Life Alliance, who said ‘I’m sure they could have lived out the rest of their lives happily.’ How could she know?

The non-prosecution of people who help the terminally ill to end their lives prematurely is itself an indication that the terms of this debate are changing. But there is something almost random about the way that debate is unfolding, around what happens at the Swiss clinic run by Dignitas, and occasional activity in the British courts.

Some of the greatest Parliamentary debates I ever saw were ‘free vote’ debates on issues of conscience, notably on the subject of abortion. I can see why there might be some reluctance to enter into a debate on this subject right now, because of the many difficult moral questions it poses. But, a bit like death, it is going to have to come some day, and maybe sooner than we think.

  • Colin Morley

    Alistair – That is why you were so VERY right in reminding TB that good government “does not do god”. My wife and I are united in hoping for a peaceful death when the time comes, but ensuring one, if at all possible, in the event of a tragedy such as befell Sir Edward and Lady Downes. Quite apart from the moral argument, do I really want to cost the state thousands of pounds to maintain a life I no longer can live? No I do not!

  • Brian Stewart

    Until the population of this country dumps religion and belief in a “God” there will always be the self seeking sellers of religion that will object to abortion and euthanasia on the grounds that it is “wrong” no other reason other than the Bible teachings. Grow up

  • Catriona Smith

    Thanks for this AC.I agree that MPs should have a free debate/vote on euthanasia.
    I spent a week in hospital a fortnight ago,in a ward with five other women,(much older than me)all suffering from various respiratory/cardiac diseases, as well as other chronic illnesses. I was greatly struck by the womens’ humour and bravery in facing their day to day struggle to stay alive. Inhalers, oxygen,nebulisers,zimmers, medication…
    As an image of the future and growing old, this was terrifying to me and I wondered would I have their stoicism? I began to think, there must be an alternative way out at the end, if wanted.
    Yet always, when I see a Dignitas story highlighted on the News, I think, but that’s not it….An anonymous tower block in a city far from home? Surely we could do better than that?
    The urge to stay alive is strong…when you think life is ebbing away,you fight to keep breathing, believe me, but when a person, who’s body is physically done, expresses the wish to die, should we not listen?
    And….why should it cost a fortune?

  • Margaret Hall

    I agree with all that. I also resent the choice of the label ‘pro-Life’. I am not anti-Life, but I do not accept there are not individual choices to be made about life, birth and death. If I was a real burden to everyone around me, financial and in every other way, and if I was not able to enjoy my life, other than through survival, I would like to be able to take my leave without feeling I am a criminal

  • Cath Lorimer

    Thank you for another stimulating post. I do not read your blog every day but have just flicked back through the archive and what strikes me is the variety but also the invariable high quality of writing and comments. I am not surprised at all that you topped Iain Dale’s league table of most followed blogging twitterers!

  • mary

    Certainly there are human beings with terminal illnesses who are capable for making an informed decision to end their lives, but tis my belief that those human beings are few.

    In my experience, most people with a terminal illness want to live as long as possible, provided their lives have any quality, and we improve our ability to relieve pain on a month by month basis. What we can’t improve is the impatience of relatives to claim their inheritance, the reluctance of the NHS to manage many geriatric services with suffcient care, and the imergence of a view that older sicker persons have little to offer us. I might want to end my life if I think that all is left to me is pain and loneliness, but even the most demented elderly people can respond to love I can assure you. By all means, lets have the debate, just as long as those debating remember who they are.

  • Arthur Bostridge

    Sad news about Sir Edward Downes and his wife, although to put it in context it seems to have come at the end of lives well lived.

    It annoys me that these pro-life groups ignore the reality of people’s experience simply because it doesn’t suit their moral stance. I can genuinely see that there are some situations (in very limited circumstances) where it is a rational choice to end your life and not helping the person to do that is keeping them in a kind of living hell. Whether the practical and moral issues make euthansia unworkable is another matter, but please don’t insist that a person can still lead a meaningful life when it’s patently obvious they can’t.

    Regarding the proposals on long-term care, my feeling is that it may actually be favoured by the middle-classes if they know that the maximum extent of their commitment is £20k or whatever, rather than potentially losing everything. I can’t see it being popular with those who have less to lose, however, and I am suspicious if the figures are actually sufficient to cover the funding (i.e will we find 5 years later it gets ramped up to cover the ‘true’ cost?)

  • Marion

    Interesting that religious people who use the pro-life argument are happy to let medical science prolong their life and those of loved ones. If you believe that God makes the decisions about your health and death, that’s fine. But live your beliefs properly and don’t be treated for any ailments.

    I am saddened that we need so much state care for the elderly I think this is an indication of our lack of community or family responsibility.