On Friday the 11th of September the UK House of Commons debated MP Rob Marris' assisted suicide bill over five hours. UK MPs are not bound to attend parliament for 'Private Member's business'; so part of the difficulty in predicting an outcome is not only about finding out MPs intentions on any bill, but also about whether they intend to turn up on the day.
As the debate began some 240 of the chamber's 650 members were in attendance with 85 of that number indicating a desire to speak to the bill.
Marris' bill was a copy of the bill debated in the House of Lords prior to the British national elections. That bill, presented by Lord Falconer, passed at second reading and was modified by amendments before ultimately failing for lack of time. Common to many parliaments using the Westminster system, the upper houses tend to allow bills to pass at second reading to allow the extension of debate into the committee stage where amendments are possible. On Friday, the Commons was clearly in no mood to extend such courtesy.
Friday's debate was marked by many commentators as a high-point in formal debating, in courtesy and in passion while absent the kind of cross-chamber argy-bargy characteristics normal in party politics. Opportunity was given to backbenchers to speak with few ministers or shadow ministers in the chamber.
While some who spoke against the bill noted their attachment to 'sanctity-of-life' principles that suggested opposition based on religious conviction, the vast majority of those that spoke against the bill did so for practical reasons. Contrary to the popular myths, few seemed to be captive to ideology and most demonstrated clearly that they were not 'out-of-touch' with their community.
The demolition of the Marris bill's supposed safeguards and principles was comprehensive. Many personal examples of sick relatives living well and well past their predicted prognosis made mockery of the six-month provisions. In addition to supporting the availability of quality care, the main focus was on the risk to vulnerable people and the ineffectiveness of the bill in protecting citizens from abuse. Nadine Dorries MP, put these concerns eloquently:
"There are people all over the country who do not have a family member or relative as their next of kin. They do not have loved ones. For them, the next of kin is the state. It sends a shiver of fear down my spine to think that such a Bill might be legislated for and approved when so many people who are protected by the law may not have such protection in future because their next of kin is the state. When they feel that they are a burden or they feel under pressure, who will coerce them and who will feel the budgetary constraints involved in looking after them?"
At the close of the debate Rob Marris MP did not take up the customary right to speak a second time. Commentators assumed that this was a sign that the bill simply did not have enough support.
At the division the numbers of MPs present swelled from the initial 240 to 448; the final numbers being 330 Noes to 118; a resounding defeat and one that eclipsed the 2006 Lords debate on Lord Joffe's assisted suicide bill; the last time that the issue was debated to a resolution.
How does a parliament vote against an assisted suicide proposal in such overwhelming numbers when, according to the polls at least, the majority of the citizenry support such changes? A legitimate question. Putting aside what the polls do and don't actually tell us, we are left with two possible conclusions. Given the quality of this debate, we can reduce this to one solitary and compelling conclusion: when parliamentarians engage with the issue, realising that theirs is a solemn and grave duty, the slogans and the emotions take on a different hue, tempered as they are by reality and the possible consequences of breaking down the prohibition on killing and creating a tolerance to suicide.
But the thought processes of MPs and the weight of concern brought to their deliberations doesn't simply happen by itself. It needs to be represented by constituents; especially those for whom the passage of such a bill raises personal concerns.
I joined colleagues from across the globe in registering our sense of awe and gratitude at the campaigning by our friends in the UK, lead impressively by NotDeadYetUK and others from the disability community. Supported logistically by the CareNotKilling Campaign and others, the NDYUK leadership worked tirelessly and creatively to make sure that their voice (ultimately, our voice) was heard and heard clearly. Their demonstrations outside Westminster on a number of occasions now, their disciplined message and visually stunning materials have set a new high water mark for campaigning that we can all learn from. Congratulations all!
This brief report can hardly do justice to this magnificent victory. But there's a sobering truth to such campaigning that brings us back to earth: we need to win every time; the other side need only win once.
Perhaps, then it is better to close with a reminder from John Pugh MP of what this is all about:
"The social consequences are, to say the least, incalculable; we cannot be certain about them. But even if there is just one poor old soulâ€”and, strangely enough, it is usually the old who dieâ€”who, under pressure, seeks a quick dispatch, it does matter. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West could not rule out that possibility, and clearly recognised that that could be a consequence. In conclusion, this week started for most of us with the haunting picture of a single child drowned on a beach. It was just one life and it affected the whole country. The consequence that can be drawn is that, as a civilisation, we cannot be casual about life without becoming a different sort of civilisation."
NB: I encourage anyone looking to gain a grasp on how to argue the case against assisted suicide to take the time to read the hansard in full (available HERE).
Watch NDYUK's video campaigning HERE
Celebrations outside Westminster (Video)
"A vote for life and dignity, not for death" Philippa Whitford MP (speech)