An open letter to Chris Philp, MP

By - Thursday 20th August, 2015

Robert Ward wants his Member of Parliament to carefully make a decision on assisted dying

Dear Chris,

Congratulations on taking up your seat and on your election to the Treasury Select Committee. Great to have our MP in such an influential position.

I don’t normally write to politicians, in fact this is a first, but I notice that your colleague Gavin Barwell has invited his constituents to a meeting to discuss the issues around the Assisted Dying Bill which comes before parliament in September. This is a sensitive and difficult issue, which transcends party politics so you might want to attend as well. Maybe Steve Reed might like to come along too. There aren’t many opportunities for Croydon MPs to engage with their constituents on a cross-party basis. Just in case you can’t get there I thought I would gather my own thoughts together and share them with you.

Fortunately it is a decision of which I have no experience; others with personal experience may bring a different perspective, but the question for me is a simple one: under what circumstances, if any at all, should the state allow a citizen legally to end their life. It is hard to imagine a tougher choice.

The option for a dignified death surrounded by family rather than the possibility of dying alone at some unknown time seems to me one that should not be denied

The individual concerned has a terminal illness. The alternatives are a difficult death at some undetermined but relatively short time in the future and a less difficult death at a time and circumstance of their own choosing. The option for a dignified death surrounded by family rather than the possibility of dying alone at some unknown time seems to me one that should not be denied.

My expectation is that this will affect a very small number of people indeed and that the eligibility criteria should be well defined to ensure that this is the case. Amongst these criteria must be that the person is of sound mind such that they are able to give consent. I do not see this as a decision that can be made under a power of attorney. I rarely find the ‘slippery slope’ argument a good one, but in this case I do.

Although family members are also profoundly affected such that one could envisage some kind of shared consent, I find that the decision is inescapably one for the individual. One could argue that the family should, perhaps must be consulted, but I do not see a case for giving them a veto.

The really tough question I find is how to prevent any suggestion of coercion

But a principle of consent is that it should be both informed and voluntary. The state must ensure that the individual is fully aware of their options and that there is no coercion. Importantly the choice must be between options each of which is the best that we can make them. The choice to let nature take its course must not be a second rate alternative.

The need to ensure that the alternatives have a recognised quality, that the person is fully informed and that they have not been coerced seems to me to something that could be expressed in an end of life bill of rights. A regulating commission needs to be set up with full access to information. This would give some reassurance to opponents with a concern that the dying might be being taken advantage of.

The really tough question I find is how to prevent any suggestion of coercion, or undue influence. A process has to be laid down that ensures the dying person does not feel that they are being pressured into an early death because they are a burden, to their family, the state or anyone else. This will not be easy but if there were to be a deal breaker this would be it.

Leaving the law as is should be a conscious choice, not just a lack of willingness to address a difficult issue

However I would not encourage this potential objection to be taken as an easy option to avoid a decision. Should parliament decide to leave the law as it is, this should be a conscious choice, not just a lack of willingness to address a difficult issue. If the principle of assisted dying is accepted then MPs should be trying hard to define an acceptable process to prevent coercion, not just avoiding the issue by claiming the principle is fine but this particular bill does not address the coercion issue adequately.

There are, I am sure, many other considerations, both in principles and in the details, for example the choice of assisted dying must not prejudice the payout of life insurance. In general though, I find that I agree with the recommendations of the report by the Demos commission on assisted dying but I accept that the British Medical Association is against this bill.

As my representative in parliament I appreciate your taking my thoughts into consideration. Please listen carefully to the debate and make up your own mind, in particular about whether prevention of coercion has been adequately addressed. This kind of difficult issue is something which normally brings out the best in our parliament so having considered the options please vote whichever way your conscience and judgement takes you. You will have my support whichever way you choose to go in this difficult choice.

Thanks for listening.



Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    We shall be in Spain, so can’t attend, but I have very strong views on this one, especially after my mother travelled abroad to have her life ended, having pretended to us all that she was going on a holiday. Luckily, the doctors refused her request and she lived many more years afterwards, quite happily as well. We would have been left in an awful mess had she succeeded. I also think that some relations might coerce a parent into doing this, for their own benefit. Not easy.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Anne – I am with you here. I am fairly certain that there are circumstances in which I would end my life, but I oppose a change in the law for one reason: such a law would be abused. Its many principled and admirable supporters present many strong and persuasive arguments and one failure of imagination: they do not grasp how families can operate in very different ways to their own, and picture only respect and support being given to the vulnerable. They are fortunate to have such positive experiences, but in reality, people would be coerced to die – and worse.

      • Anne Giles

        Thanks Liz. There are doctors now who if someone is suffering greatly will give them tranquillisers to help them and they do slow down their breathing. My first mother-in-law had a nasty cancer and she died peacefully this way.

  • moguloilman

    Thank you for the comments.

    To Anne’s point on her mother pretending to go on holiday, this happened without an assisted dying law here, so the UK having such a law made no difference in this case. Indeed had Anne’s mother attempted such a path here it would have been far easier to catch.

    It is actually an example where the system worked – she was refused. The fact that she lived for some years indicates that she would be refused under any process that would be implemented here. Anne’s example is however an argument for perhaps requiring consultation with the family.

    Regarding the point made by Liz, essentially saying that it is impossible to design a process that ensures no coercion. As I pointed out, this is crucial. I am of the view that such a process can be designed. One should also not ignore that taking such a position means you are denying suffering people their last wish. There are no easy choices here.

    • Anthony Miller

      What happens if you book into the Dignitas clinic and can’t pay the bill afterwards? Is it cash up front?

  • Anthony Miller

    Forget assisted death. What I want to know is how do I stop my doctor from trying to make me immortal. I’m perfectly healthy but she insists on taking all sorts of blood tests and sending me for scans and measuring me in every dimension and detail. To date she has found nothing wrong with me other than I’m middle aged, do no exercise and drink too much which I thought was self apparent. According to my doctor despite being a healthy middle aged man I am nearly at death’s door most of the time so why anyone needs assisted suicide I don’t know. If I was old and wanted to die quickly I’d just drink industrial quantites of whisky and smoke copiously. If a cigarette cuts 14 minutes off your like and an alcholic drink costs 7 hours then dying is in my view literally a piece of yellow liquid.