‘Backing assisted suicide isn’t left-wing. Blair and Corbyn alike opposed it’

Stephen Timms
Ground Picture / Shutterstock.com

If ever an issue deserves careful thought, and not simply a kneejerk response, it is the issue of assisted suicide.  It has returned to the news cycle in recent weeks, thanks to Esther Ranzen and is likely soon to return to Westminster.

The issue is an emotive one, but, notwithstanding the undoubtedly tragic cases we regularly hear used in its support, it is also a complex one that requires serious consideration of both sides of the argument.

Just as party leaders need to dispel myths on the campaign trail – “Labour can’t be trusted with the economy”, “all politicians are the same” – so various myths require dispelling when it comes to assisted suicide. One such myth is that support for such legislation is a left-wing idea in contrast to uncompassionate, reactionary Conservatives who wish to condemn those suffering to undignified deaths.

This myth can be readily dispelled both in practice and on principle.

Votes on assisted suicide have been unsuccessful

In practice, it is instructive to remember that there have been multiple attempts in living memory to introduce ‘assisted dying’, all of which have been unsuccessful.

Most recently in 2021, Conservative peer Lord Forsyth introduced an amendment to the Health and Care Bill that would have compelled the Government to draft an assisted suicide bill to lay before Parliament.

This has followed a number of other attempts in the Lords and two attempts in the Commons; both of which were heavily defeated, once under a Labour Government, at the height of New Labour’s popularity in 1997, and once under a Conservative Government in 2015.

The Assisted Dying Bill in 2015 was rejected by 330 votes to 118 and not simply because of Conservative numbers – 92 Labour MPs opposed the Bill while only 73 supported it. To put it differently, less than a decade ago, in a free vote, fewer than one-third of Labour MPs voted in favour of assisted suicide.

Nor can this be explained by the ascendancy of a particular wing within the party – attempts to legislate for assisted suicide have failed to command majority support in the parliamentary party under both New Labour and in the Corbyn-led era. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn personally spoke passionately against any reduction in the current protections for vulnerable people.

Why we should show caution as the party of the vulnerable

When it comes to principle, there are good reasons for those of us on the left to exercise caution. If caution was justified in 1997 and 2015, we have more reason to be wary today since the introduction and subsequent rapid expansion of euthanasia in Canada in 2016, and its expansion in recent years in the Netherlands and Belgium to include minors and people with mental illness.

As the party of the vulnerable, the voiceless and the victim, the stories that have emerged from these countries ought to give us significant pause for thought – data shows that people with disabilities, the poor and those who fear being a burden to their relatives are all at risk when assisted suicide is permitted, while investing in high-quality palliative care, which is harder to access for the impoverished, can easily be marginalised when assisted suicide is allowed.

Parliament has considered – and rejected – assisted suicide in different guises on several occasions in recent years in both Houses. Indeed, over the last year, it has been engaged in a substantial year-long inquiry on the subject through the cross-party Health and Social Care Select Committee (HSCSC).

We shouldn’t pledge support or a free vote

As part of its inquiry, the Committee visited Oregon, often considered the gold standard for assisted suicide by campaigners who wish to distract attention from Canada but where patients have been permitted deaths for conditions including anorexia, arthritis, diabetes and hernias.

We await the Committee’s final report but the oral evidence sessions have suggested my colleagues on the Labour benches have been troubled by what they have learned from Oregon and elsewhere.

The latest attempt to promote assisted suicide came in a series of media comments by the Conservative MP, Kit Malthouse.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that the radical individualism of some Conservatives should lead them to favour radical autonomy in this area, even at the risk of dire societal outcomes for the vulnerable. But in my view that should not be the position of those of us on the left.

My advice to Labour prospective parliamentary candidates, and MPs, if asked their views on assisted suicide through the activity of well-funded, supportive campaign groups is simple: to pledge neither support for the practice nor for another free vote on a subject Parliament has looked at in depth only recently via the Select Committee.

Instead, a prudent response would be to pledge to explore and listen carefully to both sides of the argument and then to vote in whatever way will protect the most vulnerable, while supporting greater investment in palliative and social care.


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