September column: Assisted Dying Bill

Jo Cox writes a column every month for the Batley News and Spenborough Guardian. This is the column for September, published in both newspapers this week.

Parliament was at its best this month when we debated the very complicated and deeply sensitive Assisted Dying Bill.

A majority of MPs voted to stop it from continuing through its parliamentary stages. Had it done so it would have allowed people who are terminally ill to have been helped to end their own lives, with the assistance of medical professionals and within the law.

To date, this is the issue on which I have received the most correspondence – finely balanced between those in favour of change and those against.

The debate that preceded the vote was an example of Parliament at its best. Thoughtful, considered and dignified. The fact that so many MPs attended a Friday sitting of Parliament I think shows just how seriously this issue was taken by everyone, whatever side of the debate they were on.

I must admit, this was an issue that I personally struggled with. A lot of people wrote letters to me, sent campaign postcards, and some made direct approaches and made heartfelt pleas in a bid to help me better understand the issue and how it would impact on them and their loved ones. For many this was a matter of faith and of conscience, views I understand and deeply respect.

In the end I voted for the Bill to proceed, but not without reservation.

I came to the view that the law at present lacks both clarity and equality for the terminally ill and their families. There are also issues surrounding the dignity of sufferers, which have been raised with me very powerfully. It worries me that the only support that can be provided to the terminally ill is from family and friends, rather than a medical professional. This adds unnecessary stress and confusion to loved ones at an already difficult time.

There is also an unequal situation in which only those with the financial means, support and physical ability to travel to centres such as Dignitas in Switzerland can receive medical assistance if that is their choice.

Had the Bill progressed I would have raised a number of concerns regarding additional safeguards. Firstly, I would have called for mandatory mental health assessments for people requesting assistance, due to both the nature of the request and the prevalence of depression among the terminally ill. I also felt the Bill needed to give more clarity that one person, rather than a combination of medical professionals and the courts, had full accountability for any final decision.

I believe the Bill needed to keep the role of GPs at the centre of the regulation in order to fully appreciate that they should not be asked to make judgements outside the field of medicine, such as those relating to personal or domestic issues.

Following what was a very moving debate I now hope that discussions about how we care and support the terminally ill continue. If nothing else I hope it will increase pressure on the Government to improve funding for palliative care. Having recently visited Kirkwood Hospice it is clear to me the excellent end of life support they offer would only be enhanced by increased discussion and investment into palliative care.

We may not be ready yet, as a parliament, to allow people to die with the dignity some would wish for but at least we can discuss the issue with decorum.

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