Charis Selwood (23 from Shepton Mallet in Somerset) is urging MPs in Somerset, Bath and Bristol to back a change in the law on assisted dying following the death of her Grandfather in May 2020, who died eight days after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
Charis’ plea comes as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life, a cross-party group of MPs and Peers pushing for a change in the law on assisted dying, meets tomorrow (Wednesday 7 July 2021). This comes weeks after an assisted dying bill was introduced to the House of Lords by Baroness Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, which paves the way for the first debate on prospective legislation in parliament in five years. It would allow people who are terminally ill and mentally competent to die in a manner, timing and place of their choice in the final months of their life, a change supported by 84% of the public.
Charis’ Grandfather, 80-year-old Samuel from Bristol, was diagnosed with cancer in May 2020, detected following an admission to hospital. At the time of diagnosis, the primary cancer was unknown but it was mainly detected in his stomach and had rapidly spread throughout his body.
Learning his condition was terminal, Samuel asked to put a Do Not Attempt Resuscitation (DNACPR) decision in place – a document issued by a doctor which tells your medical team not to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart or breathing were to stop, as the procedure may be likely to be futile or cause more harm than good.
Described as a “proud man, a man’s man, in every sense of the word”, by his granddaughter, Charis believes Samuel would have taken life-ending measures to control his own death if it had been a legal option. Sam’s deteriorating health meant he was unable to eat, drink, or speak. Charis says: “he communicated with the family by squeezing our hand; he would signal when he was in pain. We know had he had direct access to medication, he would have said ‘right that’s it, I’ve had enough’.”
MPs need to realise that by denying people choice and control over their death, they are putting people through torture.
Describing the last week of her Grandfather’s life as a “living hell”, Charis outlines: “If we’d known he had a month left, money would have been no object, I would have done anything I could so he could have a good death. I would have re-mortgaged the house to get him to Switzerland if that’s what he wanted; begged, borrowed or stole the money he needed. I know he would have done it for me in a heartbeat. He was funny, charismatic, and sweet. He was the best grandparent you could have wished for.”
Charis concludes: “As a family we fought to uphold his wishes – trying to get him home to die surrounded by his family. But we couldn’t, he was too poorly to move him. In a sense I’m glad we couldn’t get him home because if he’d asked us to help him end his pain, we would have done it and could have been prosecuted. Watching the disease spread through his body, anyone on this planet would have done the same.”
Charis firmly believes no one should be subjected to such a traumatic death. She added: “MPs need to realise that by denying people choice and control over their death, they are putting people through torture. It’s also about the people who are there –I’ve had nightmares, the emotional trauma of watching someone in that much pain and you can’t do anything.”
Lead campaigner Dignity in Dying’s for Bath and Bristol group, Pauline Carroll said,
“My own District Nursing experience convinced me that the very terminally ill whose pain or distress cannot be controlled or alleviated by even excellent palliative care, want and need assisted dying as an end-of-life choice. People like Samuel need access to the very best care as well as the option of an assisted death under clear criteria and safeguards.”
Charis is urging her MP James Heappey and other MPs across Somerset, Bath and Bristol, to listen to experiences like hers and act so that no one is forced to suffer like her Grandfather or family. Last year Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, who has met with members of Dignity in Dying’s local group, added her support for a review of the UK’s assisted dying laws.
Parliamentarians will soon debate new assisted dying legislation for the first time in five years, after a private member’s bill was introduced by Baroness Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, in May. The bill will see its full Second Reading debate later this year, likely in the autumn. A similar bill was introduced in Scotland last month, with a citizen’s jury on Jersey also recommending law change – meaning three jurisdictions across the British Isles will debate assisted dying by the end of this year.
Baroness Meacher’s bill would legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life, a change supported by 84% of the British public. Two independent doctors and a High Court judge would have to assess each request, which if granted would enable a terminally ill person to die in a manner, time and place of their choosing. The legislation is based on a bill tabled by Lord Falconer in 2014, which was supported by Peers at Second Reading. Two opposition amendments were defeated by large margins at Committee Stage, however the parliamentary session ended before it could progress further. The bill is modelled on legislation that has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, since adopted by 10 other American states, three Australian states and New Zealand.
The meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life takes place at 10am-11am on Wednesday 7 July and will be livestreamed on Dignity in Dying’s YouTube Channel. Speakers include a Rabbi and an Imam from the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, disability rights campaigners and a palliative care doctor.
Notes to Editor:
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The UK’s laws on assisted dying
Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.
Assisted dying is also prohibited across the British Crown Dependencies. The Government of Jersey, a British crown dependency, commissioned a citizen’s jury on assisted dying which last month recommended a change in the law to allow assisted dying as a choice for the terminally ill and unbearably suffering. The full recommendations will be debated in the States Assembly later this year.
Assisted Dying Scotland Bill
Liam McArthur lodged the Assisted Dying Scotland Members Bill proposal with the Non Government Bill Unit (NGBU) of the Scottish Parliament on 21 June 2021.
A Consultation on the contents of the bill is planned to take place in autumn.
The proposal seeks to introduce the right to an assisted death for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in Scotland. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.
House of Lords Private Members Assisted Dying Bill
Baroness Meacher’s assisted dying bill was selected seventh in the House of Lords private members ballot in May 2021, meaning it is highly likely to be given time for a full Second Reading debate later this year. Its First Reading took place on 26th May 2021, where Baroness Meacher introduced the Bill to the House of Lords. Dates for future Readings will be announced in due course.
This bill is based on one introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014, the full text of which can be found here: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2592
Rob Marris MP introduced a similar bill in 2015 which was defeated in the Commons.
In April 2021, the Health Secretary announced to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life that he had requested data from the Office for National Statistics on suicides by terminally ill people and assisted deaths in Switzerland of British nationals. This followed comments Mr Hancock made in the House of Commons in November and January this year highlighting the Government’s role in obtaining a fuller understanding of the functioning of current assisted dying laws, the need for a fair and evidence-based debate, and the importance of suicide prevention and patient safety measures.
The functioning of the current law on assisted dying was the subject of a Backbench Business Committee Debate in July 2019 and a Westminster Hall debate in January 2020, at which a majority of MPs speaking called for a review of present legislation.
The impact of the UK’s ban on assisted dying
Before the coronavirus pandemic, on average one Briton every week travelled to Switzerland for a legal assisted death – a process which costs £10,000 on average and often causes people to die prematurely because of the need to retain the physical strength to make the journey. Anyone who assists in the arrangement of an assisted death overseas or accompanies someone to Switzerland for this purpose could be prosecuted for ‘assisting a suicide’ in England and Wales. Polling has found that over half (53%) of Brits would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death if terminally ill and two-thirds (66%) would consider breaking the law to help a loved one do so, yet only a quarter (25%) would be able to afford it.
A further 300 terminally ill people end their own life in England every year on average, and 17 people every day suffer as they die even with access to the best end of life care.
In the US, assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in 11 jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and New Mexico (April 2021).
In Australia, assisted dying is a legal choice for terminally ill citizens in Victoria (June 2019), Western Australia (December 2019), Tasmania (March 2021) and South Australia (June 2021).
New Zealand is set to legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent citizens by November 2021, following a public referendum on the End of Life Choice Act in October 2020.
In Ireland, an assisted dying bill is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny after a majority of TDs voted to progress the Dying with Dignity Bill 2020 in October.
Spain passed a law allowing assisted dying in March 2021 to be implemented later this year.
Austria’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2020 that its blanket ban on assisted dying is unconstitutional and the practice will be decriminalised in limited circumstances by 2022.
Germany began considering potential assisted dying legalisation in January 2021 after its Constitutional Court struck down the ban in 2020.
Canada introduced assisted dying legislation in 2016.
Assisted dying is permitted in Switzerland, and broader right-to-die laws are in place in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The largest ever poll of British doctors on assisted dying, conducted by the British Medical Association, results of which were released in October 2020, found overwhelming support for a change to the BMA’s current stance of opposition to an assisted dying law (61%), and that half of doctors personally support a change in the law (50%). The BMA’s current position – opposed to a change in the law – is due to de debated at their next Annual Representative Meeting in 2021.
In September 2020, Eminent GPs Prof Aneez Esmail and Sir Sam Everington launched a legal challenge to the Royal College of GPs alongside the Good Law Project and Dignity in Dying over RCGP Council’s decision to maintain opposition to assisted dying despite its own survey showing a dramatic shift in GP opinion.
In March 2019, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a member survey.