Politicians and pro-lifers have strongly criticised a statement by the Health Secretary, saying that people are legally allowed to travel overseas for assisted suicide amid lockdown.
In response to an urgent question by Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, Matt Hancock told MPs: “Travelling abroad for the purpose of assisted dying is a reasonable excuse and so anyone doing so would not be breaking the law.”
However, during the debate on the impact of coronavirus restrictions on assisted suicide abroad, Congleton MP Fiona Bruce, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, questioned why some MPs are pushing to make assisted suicide easier at a time of high levels of physical and mental stress.
Mr Mitchell, who asked for the debate, used the opportunity to call for a reform to the law. Currently it remains a criminal offence to encourage or assist the death of another person.
Ms Bruce asked the Health Secretary: “At a time when the whole country is making huge sacrifices to protect life, and at a time of exceptionally high levels of physical and mental stress, and when many people may feel very vulnerable, does the Minister understand and accept the views of many, including in this House, that it would be completely inappropriate – indeed, insensitive – of this Parliament to go anywhere near making access to any form of suicide easier?”
Responding, the Secretary of State for Health, stated that he thought “it is right that debate is taken and led by Parliament rather than by Government”.
Assisted suicide was last voted on, and rejected by 330-118 votes, a clear majority of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons, in Parliament in 2015.
Campaigners have since then tried to use the Courts to change the law on assisted suicide. However, in November 2019 the judges ruled that the court was “not an appropriate forum for the discussion of the sanctity of life.” They rejected a challenge to this ruling in January of this year.
Speaking after the debate, Ms Bruce added: “Since the start of this pandemic we have all spent nine months trying to protect vulnerable lives, particularly, indeed commendably, those in the medical profession.
“The Every Mind Matters campaign this week reported that 30 per cent of people at present are suffering mental health challenges and whilst it is to be strongly hoped that they will recover from these when this temporary crisis ends it is, in view of this deeply concerning statistic, at best insensitive, and at worst irresponsible, for campaigners to try and use this pandemic to push for a change in the law making any form of suicide easier.”
Campaigners in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia have been pressing for the Government to undertake a review of the law on assisted suicide, but in April this year Ms Bruce sought an assurance from the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland MP, that the Government had no intention to initiate a review on this law.
In his response, the Lord Chancellor confirmed that “we don’t currently have any plans to initiate a review of the law in the area or to indeed publish a call for evidence”.
Also speaking in the debate on the impact of coronavirus restrictions on assisted suicide abroad, Conservative MP Scott Benton asked Matt Hancock if he agreed “that rather than facilitating overseas travel for those terminally ill patients, the Government should ensure that they receive world-class palliative care here in the UK”.
The Secretary of State for Health replied: “Yes, I think this is a really important point, because high-quality palliative care and the question directly of assisted dying that is before the House today are not separate questions. They are intimately tied together and whatever view the House takes on assisted dying—and it is for the House—it is the Government’s intention to support and strengthen palliative care to make sure that we give the very best support for people towards the end of their life.”
Bob Blackman MP commented: “A British Medical Association survey of its members on assisted suicide and euthanasia found that 83 per cent of those involved in providing palliative care – those who have the most experience of dealing with people at the end of their lives – would oppose any legalisation of euthanasia, and that 84 per cent declared that they would be unwilling to participate in any such activity. Surely we should be guided, in many ways, by the professionals in this regard.”
Tweeting after the debate, prominent Catholic MP Sir Edward Leigh, said: ‘Endlessly prolonging life is just as unnatural as artificially ending it, but we must oppose euthanasia and assisted dying in all of its forms.
‘If life becomes optional it puts undue pressure on the weak, old and vulnerable.’
Antonia Tully, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children’s (SPUC) Campaigns director, said: “It is incredible that going abroad to kill yourself is an exception to travel restrictions. At a time when the country is making huge sacrifices to protect human life, why is the Health Secretary giving the green light for vulnerable and sick people to end theirs?
“It is particularly irresponsible to promote suicide at a time when people are already under such enormous pressures and mental health problems are skyrocketing,” she continued. “The loneliness and pressures of lockdown could push already vulnerable people to feel they want to end their lives by assisted suicide. The Government should be doing all it can to support ill and vulnerable people at this time, not telling them it’s fine to go abroad in order to kill themselves.”
Ms Tully added: “Mr Mitchell is determined to change the law on assisted suicide and he will see today’s exchange in the House of Commons as taking this a step forward. The pro-life community continues to oppose any change in the law.”
Picture: Health Secretary Matt Hancock.