Talk and discussion on the case for assisted dying led by Dr Philip Graham, vice-chair of Dignity in Dying, plus short presentation from Verena Hewat, End of Life Advocacy Project Director of Compassion in Dying.
The room is open from 7.00. Light refreshments are available and there is an opportunity to mingle, chat and browse through our bookstall (courtesy of Newham Books). Everyone is free to join us after the meeting at the George pub (just round the corner, opposite the station). The meeting is free but there will be a collection at the end to meet expenses.
Wanstead Library is a 2 minute walk from Wanstead Tube (central line). 1 minute from bus stops 66,101,308, W13,W14. Free adjacent car park. Disabled access.
The grim but highly topical subject of our meeting is even one of the upcoming storylines in Coronation Street. In the story Hayley, played by actor and distinguished British Humanist Association supporter Julie Hesmondhalgh, is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. As her condition deteriorates she decides she wants to take her own life. The Street’s producer said "This is a very sensitive issue and we will be exploring the effects of her decision on husband Roy who has a huge emotional and moral dilemma over her choice to die this way".
The storyline echoes the real life tragedy of Tony Nicklinson which first hit the headlines last year. Tony suffered from ‘locked-in syndrome’ and was paralysed from the neck down following a stroke. He was mentally competent but could only communicate via a computer operated through eye movement. After seven years of unimaginable suffering he sought an assurance from the High Court that anyone who assisted in terminating his life would not face prosecution. His request was declined last August. He died in despair seven days later.
Tony’s widow has been pursuing an appeal. The BHA intervened both in this appeal and that of Tony Lamb who was immobilised following a road accident. The BHA evidence, prepared by prominent moral philosophers, centres on the obligation to alleviate suffering, the principle of personal autonomy, and the right of mentally competent adults to make decisions about their lives, as long as they do not result in harm to others. The BHA argued that ‘Being able to die, with dignity, in a manner of our choosing must be understood to be a fundamental human right… the right to choose when to die is inextricably linked to the right to life.’
The appeals were lost this July. However the cases will now proceed to the Supreme Court. There was also success in a third appeal. This concerns ‘Martin’, who also cannot end his own life due to his disabilities. The Court directed that the Crown Prosecution Service must produce clear guidance as to whether anyone who assists in his travel to Switzerland will be prosecuted.
Why has this become such a prominent issue? One reason is that the law has not kept up with the ability of medical science to keep people alive even where their quality of life is unbearable. A recent poll showed that 81% of British people support assisted dying. Lord Falconer tabled a Dignity in Dying private members bill earlier this year. However reform has been strongly resisted with some of the strongest objections being based on religious belief. Previous attempts to change the law were opposed by unelected Bishops in the House of Lords.
There is legitimate concern that undue pressure will be put on people in a vulnerable position and there must of course be stringent safeguards. A number of countries have enacted provisions and there has been a Death with Dignity Act in the American states of Oregon and Washington since 1994 and 2008 respectively.
Doctor Graham (a BHA member) will argue the case for assisted dying, as proposed by the Falconer Bill, and will explain why his organisation did not support the Nicklinson appeal and the distinction it makes between assisted dying and assisted suicide.
The End of Life Advocacy Project is run in partnership with Age UK (East London) and is lottery funded. It aims to empower people to know their rights in making end of life decisions. Compassion in Dying (www.compassionindying.org.uk) is the sister organisation of Dignity in Dying (www.dignityindying.org.uk)