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Victory for Assisted Dying for the terminally ill in Debate at Oxford Union

On 14 May, 2009, the debating chambers of the Oxford Union saw advocates of assisted dying score an intellectual victory. In the motion, ‘This House Would Legalise Assisted Suicide’, the Ayes won with 123 against an opposition score of 107.

Dignity in Dying supporter Lesley Close opened the case in favor of assisted dying. She spoke movingly of her brother John’s life, his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, and his eventual trip to Dignitas. The Union audience received her very warmly, with long and loud applause and an emotional thanks from Union president Corey Dixon.

Next, Baroness Finlay, Chair of the APPG on Dying Well, outlined the case for the opposition, speaking of her experience in palliative care and of her doubts about the efficacy of proposed assisted dying safeguards. She claimed a link between the UK assisted dying campaign and between the more wide-ranging and dangerous policies of Ludwig Minelli and Dr. Nitschke. She noted that assisted dying was an emotive issue, but claimed that its proponents are short on facts.

Eminent gerontologist Professor Raymond Tallis then rebutted Baroness Finlay’s fears with facts, citing the unblemished record of Oregon State’s assisted dying law (enacted in 1997). He noted that not only have there been no incidents of abuse in Oregon (Battin 2007), but that palliative care there has improved markedly because of the attention that assisted dying laws called to end-of-life care provision (Ganzini 2003, ODHS 2005). He also noted that the numbers of applicants to the programme have remained tiny and static, thus disproving any notion of a ‘slippery slope’. He also noted that, given the high numbers of mercy killings as well as the widespread practice of terminal sedation within the UK palliative care industry, assisted dying legislation would merely regulate a practice that is already occurring.

Dominica Roberts, leader of the Pro-Life Alliance, continued the case for the opposition. She expressed her views on the sanctity of life, on why those dying have a responsibility to the living, on the vulnerability and manipulability of the elderly, and on how abortion and assisted dying together threaten a pro-life agenda.

A floor debate then ensued, with four students speaking for two minutes each: two spoke in favor of assisted dying, and two spoke in opposition to it.

Thereafter, former UN Medical Director Dr. Michael Irwin closed the case for assisted dying. He explained his preferences for his own death, and he related his experiences in assisting three terminally-ill individuals to reach Dignitas. He then spoke about how palliative medicine cannot solve all of the problems confronting those approaching death, and noted that, for the terminally-ill and mentally-competent, the right to die is a matter of personal choice and is an innate right. Any system that would deny a terminally-ill, mentally-competent person the right to control their own death, Irwin concluded, would be paternalistic, presumptuous and inhumane. Finally, he noted that it is precisely because of extremists like Nitschke that the UK needs a regulated, safeguarded assisted dying programme.

Former editor of The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph Dominic Lawson closed the case for the opposition. He said that championing Oregon’s assisted dying laws is akin to admiring Texas’s execution laws. He also noted that the ‘suicide taboo’ existed for a reason, suggesting that suicide is an antisocial act that destroys communities. Paraphrasing Hamlet, he cried: “Taboo, or not taboo. I say taboo!” The existence of assisted dying laws in Albania was also a compelling reason to resist such legislation in Britain, he asserted.

Ultimately, the case for a safeguarded assisted dying law won out, thanks to the compassionate, emotional and evidence based arguments.