September 11, 2015
After an impassioned four-and-a-half hour debate in the Commons, members voted by three to one against giving second reading to a the Assisted Dying Bill, which would allow terminally ill patients to be supplied with a lethal dose of drugs.
MPs on both sides of the argument lined up to give moving accounts about the loss of loved ones.
But they were swayed by a series of warnings from MPs qualified as doctors, who said a change in law could fundamentally alter the relationship between a doctor and patient.
It came as a man who helped his terminally ill wife commit suicide called for a change in law as MPs are set to vote on the controversial Assisted Dying Bill.
Barrie Sheldon, 83, who helped his suffering wife Elizabeth take a fatal overdose, said people with painful and degenerative diseases had the right to die.
Talking of his wife’s struggle with Huntington’s disease, Mr Sheldon said granting only terminally ill patients with less than six months to live was a start, but didn’t go far enough.
He said: “With a neurological disease you can live on and on and on.
“If you know there’s no cure, you are doing to die and you are in pain or in a degrading situation then there’s no point in hoping for something that does not exist.”
Mr Sheldon, who was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of aiding or abetting suicide, said: “It’s important that the law is changed to take account of people with neurological diseases.
“I want to feel that at least it doesn’t have to go on when people don’t want to go on.
“It’s a question of individual choice. We are talking about people who feel life is intolerable.”
Mr Sheldon spoke out as a crucial debate on assisted suicide is being held in the House of Commons today.
The radical move would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to patients thought to have less than six months to live who have demonstrated a “clear and settled intention” to end their lives.
Requests from terminally ill patients would be considered by two doctors and a family court judge.
Almost 300 Britons have visited suicide clinics in Switzerland since 2002 according to figures from the campaign group Dignity in Dying.
Emotional arguments have been deployed sides of the debate, with opponents arguing legal changes will put pressure on patients to end their lives prematurely – while reform advocates say measures are needed to end suffering.
The Church of England has led the argument against assisted dying, with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby warning legalising the act would be the start of a “slippery slope” which could lead to more difficulties.
His concern was recently echoed by UK faith feaders from the Muslim Council of Britain, the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and the Network of Sikh Organisations UK in a joint open letter to MPs.
Together they warned that the UK would cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon” if Parliament votes to let terminally ill patients end their lives.
Their views are supported by David Cameron, who has clearly expressed his opposition to an approach that would “take us closer to euthanasia”.
However, an alliance of religious figures, including former Archbishop George Carey, have broken ranks to voice an opposing view.
In stark opposition to Archbishop Welby, Lord Carey believes allowing terminally ill people to choose the end their lives is a “profoundly Christian and moral thing” to do.
A number of medical professionals have publicly supported the bill, claiming the proposed legislation would help ensure safeguards were in place for a practice that is already happening behind closed doors.
Mr Sheldon said: “Friends and relatives are helping people to die but it’s all under wraps and that’s why it’s important to change the law to protect people.
“At the moment the situation is very murky.”
Speaking of the lead-up to his wife’s suicide, Mr Sheldon said: “Life became a nightmare with the stress of knowing there could be no happy ending, as you gradually get worse and worse.”
His wife was diagnosed with Huntington’s – a hereditary degenerative disease leads to a withering loss of muscle co-ordination, mental decline and behavioural changes – in the late 1970s.
Mr Sheldon, who initially refused his desperate wife’s pleas to die, helped her stockpile drugs for her to kill herself in 1982.
But he returned to find Mrs Sheldon was still alive – in a comatose state – and she was rushed to hospital where she died four days later.
He said: “When we had enough drugs I went away for a weekend. Had I remained in my house they would have hit a murder charge on me.
“It was the worst weekend of my life.”
Mr Sheldon was arrested on suspicion for aiding or abetting a suicide after revealing the drama on BBC’s Newsnight in 2010.
He remained on police bail for over a year before the case against him was finally dropped.