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Opinion: Instead of criminalising compassion, let people die with dignity

Opinion: Instead of criminalising compassion, let people die with dignity
The time has come to re-examine a law that threatens criminal charges for families that support their loved one’s choice to die with dignity

For me it all comes down to one word: choice. For others, it may be about dignity or compassion, and while they are also hugely important to me, it is the element of control that I know I will want when my time comes.

I have had a myriad of choices in practically every aspect of my life. Where I went to university, what I wanted to do as a career, how and when I wanted to get married and which party to support at the ballot box. I can envisage circumstances where I would want a choice at the end of my life too.

Ideally, of course, I hope that when my time comes, it happens peacefully, in my sleep, at the end of a day full of fun and laughter with the ones I love. But I have learned that is all too seldom the case.

That realisation is what has propelled me on a journey from someone who wondered whether they could support a change in the existing law when asked, to one determined to make it happen. That is not to say that I favour some rule-less free for all. No. But the time has come to re-examine a law that offers an expensive choice abroad for those who can afford it, and threatens criminal charges for the family that supports their loved one’s choice. It criminalises compassion.

My first encounter with the debate was back when I was a journalist and the late Margo Macdonald had ignited the issue with the presentation of her End of Life Bill to the Scottish parliament. Our discussion had a profound effect on me.

Since that initial conversation I have listened to every argument, read every article and asked every question I could think of. Recently it has always been the same. Surely, people who know for certain that death is close should have the right to choose how to die with dignity?

Since becoming an MP I have met, and listened to the heartbreaking stories of, those who have come to parliament to ask us to change the law. They know it will not be in time for them, but they want others to have the choice to avoid their situation.

I helped re-establish the For Choice at the End of Life group in parliament with the hope of a more full debate on the rights of those who have reached the final stages of a terminal illness and have the ability to make the fateful decision.

At the moment they can, if they have funds available, make the expensive trip to a private clinic in Switzerland. A two-tier system for those who can, and cannot afford it. On their return, of course, any family who has supported them faces the prospect of criminal charges, and potentially up to 14 years in prison for assisting a suicide in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It has been deeply troubling reading stories of widowed spouses, already dealing with the loss of their lifelong companion, treated like criminals and facing prison under British law.

Meanwhile, more than 400 people have travelled from the UK to Switzerland over the past 20 years because they wanted to, and could afford to, make that choice. For a country that often lauds how liberal and progressive we think are, we have a long way to go to ensure that the law treats everyone with compassion and equality.

We know that public opinion in the UK is open to a different approach. Recent polls show that more than 80 per cent of the public support a narrow change in the law around assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. This move is supported by many individuals in the medical profession and even some religious organisations who recognise it ends the pain and suffering people endure.

And only last week the British Medical Association revealed they had decided to drop their opposition to assisted dying, opening up new possibilities for change.

Opinions and beliefs have changed over time, and that is why I am bringing forward a motion at Liberal Democrat Conference this weekend to ask that we begin the journey of legalising assisted dying here in the UK. My colleague Liam McArthur, the MSP for Orkney will also shortly be presenting a Bill – the third of its kind – to the Scottish parliament.

Many of us get the privilege of experiencing several different lives during our time on this planet. In my case, journalist, mother, politician, and – if I’m lucky – retiree. But we will only have one death and everyone deserves the right, when that time comes, to be able to choose how and when they want their final happy day on this earth to be. We must change the law and ensure everyone can die with dignity.

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West and the party’s treasury spokesperson