Covid Regulations: Assisted Deaths Abroad

5th November 2020

Andrew Mitchell asks an Urgent Question on the impact of the new covid-19 regulations on the ability of terminally ill adults to travel abroad for assisted death.

Coronavirus Regulations: Assisted Deaths Abroad

To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on the impact of new coronavirus regulations on the ability of terminally ill adults to travel abroad for an assisted death.

Issues of life and death are some of the most difficult subjects that come before us in this House, and the question of how we best support people in their choices at the end of their life is a complex moral issue that when considered, weighs heavily upon us all. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) asked an important question and I want to set out the precise position. Under the current law, based on the Suicide Act 1961, it is an offence to encourage or assist the death of another person. However, it is legal to travel abroad for the purpose of assisted dying where it is allowed in that jurisdiction. The new coronavirus regulations, which come into force today, place restrictions on leaving the home without a reasonable excuse; travelling abroad for the purpose of assisted dying is a reasonable excuse, so anyone doing so would not be breaking the law. These coronavirus regulations do not change the existing legal position on assisted dying.

As this is a matter of conscience, the Government do not take a position. It is instead a matter for each and every Member of Parliament to speak on and vote according to their sincerely held beliefs, and it is for the will of the House to decide whether the law should change. The global devastation of the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of high-quality palliative care, just as it has shone a spotlight on so many issues and, as difficult as it may be, I welcome this opportunity to have this conversation about assisted dying, as it is one of the most sensitive elements of end-of-life care.

I have the greatest sympathy for anyone who has suffered pain in dying or suffered the pain of watching a loved one battle a terminal degenerative condition, and I share a deep respect for friends and colleagues in all parts of the House who share and hold strong views. I am pleased that the House has been given this opportunity to discuss the impact of the pandemic on one of the most difficult ethical questions that we face.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and thank you to my right hon. Friend for responding himself.

This is an issue of conscience for us as Members of this House. I respect those who take a different view from me, not least because theirs was previously my view. Colleagues may have seen, over the weekend, the news reports about a woman who this week travelled to Switzerland to end her life in order to avoid travel restrictions. As a frontline NHS worker with terminal breast cancer, she did not want to run the risk of dying in great pain and without dignity. The new regulations that have come into force today could deter anyone else from travelling to Switzerland for an assisted death. That will undoubtedly cause many more Britons to suffer as they die, due to a lack of a safeguarded law here in the UK, although I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying the precise legal circumstances.

In the light of the radical shift of the views of the medical profession two weeks ago, the recent legislative change in New Zealand this week and groundbreaking progress in southern Ireland, along with the continuing and massive support for law reform from the British public, will the Government, from their position of neutrality, enable all of us to understand three things—first, the extent of suffering that the blanket ban on assisted dying is causing dying people and their families; secondly, the challenges that the current law is creating for healthcare professionals, police officers and other public servants; and thirdly, what the UK can learn from international evidence on the operation of assisted dying laws, and their safeguards, in the United States, Australia and Canada?

I am supporting a very tight reform that would allow someone who is terminally ill, within six months of the end of their life, and who has themselves decided that this is the end of life they want, independently certified by two doctors and confirmed as their independent decision by a High Court judge, to end their life, as is their choice.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the way in which he puts his case. Of course, we acknowledge the changing views of many, including many in the medical profession, and, of course, we observe the changes in the international debate. I think it is absolutely reasonable for this House to have a conversation and discussion on what is an important topic, and it is right that we locate that question within a broader discussion of how we care for people at the end of their lives, which, because of the coronavirus pandemic, has sadly become a central issue of public debate in this country.



Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP speaking in the House of Commons, 5 Nov 2020, Urgent Question