Patricia Hewitt is campaigning for the right to die. She believes that terminally ill people who are mentally competent should have access to assisted suicide, and is calling for a Private Members' Bill in parliament to change the law.
Part of me wants to be cynical; she never said anything about this as Health Secretary, after all, when she might have done something about it directly. But then again, this is a genuinely cross-party issue, and if she can achieve something with her campaign, then all power to her.
I'm strongly in favour of the right of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to decide to end their own life, as long as they make the choice freely and without being put under pressure. For me, that comes down to the core liberal principle of personal autonomy: my life is mine to dispose of, and not the state's to enforce. I do understand the serious practical arguments against assisted dying (how do we know that it's a genuine free choice?), but I would like to think that they can be overcome with well-drafted legislation and high quality medical care. And is it right to let a question of practicality defeat an argument that seems sound in principle?
Beyond all the political arguments, there's an important legal problem in the mix. Currently the law on assisting suicide is ambiguous. In particular, it's unclear whether a person who travels to Switzerland, to help a loved one get to the Dignitas clinic, is committing a crime. MS sufferer Debbie Purdy went to the Court of Appeal last month, arguing that the government had a duty to make the current guidelines more explicit. The court unfortunately ruled that the guidelines were adequate, so in fact, we're still in the dark.
So far, the CPS hasn't prosecuted friends and family who have accompanied patients to Dignitas, and quite right too. From the point of view of a person wanting to spend those precious last few weeks with a dying husband or wife, this is great news. For the legal system, it's not so helpful: only if a relative returning to the UK from Dignitas is charged and tried will we have a final answer as to whether or not it is a crime to go there to support a loved one.
I'm very uncomfortable with that situation. It seems very wrong for someone to be guilty of a crime if they have no way of knowing that whether their conduct is illegal until it finally comes to court! To me, that seems to be a serious breach of the rule of law, and I hope that if Debbie Purdy takes her case to the House of Lords (or the Supreme Court, as it will shortly become), they will decide to clear things up.
The current saga also sheds light on the cruelty and cynicism of so-called Care Not Killing, the campaign group against assisted dying. They have steadfastly opposed any attempt to clarify the law in this area. In other words, for the sake of their own political campaign, they are happy for an unfair ambiguity in the law to put terrifying pressure on terminally ill people and their loved ones, and potentially to rob them of their last chance to say goodbye. I think that's shameful; and I don't see much that's "caring" about their attitude.