WHY I’VE CHANGED MY MIND ON AS­SISTED DY­ING

The for­mer Tory min­is­ter is now cam­paign­ing for ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients to end their lives legally af­ter two bouts of can­cer and his fa­ther’s ‘won­der­ful’ death

Daily Express - - EXCLUSIVE: NICK BOLES, MP - By Do­minic Mid­g­ley

WHEN the Labour back­bencher Rob Mar­ris in­tro­duced an as­sisted dy­ing Bill in the House of Com­mons on Septem­ber 11, 2015, it was heav­ily de­feated by 330 votes to 118. Among the 202 MPs who did not vote that day was Nick Boles. The mem­ber for Gran­tham and Stam­ford freely ad­mits that, given the de­bate was on a Fri­day af­ter­noon, he was prob­a­bly back in his con­stituency.

But a year later Boles – who had been suc­cess­fully treated for Hodgkin’s lym­phoma in 2007 – was di­ag­nosed with a can­cer­ous tumour in his head. And, as the 18th-cen­tury di­arist Dr John­son once said, noth­ing con­cen­trates the mind like the prospect of death.

“I didn’t re­ally think much about death the first time [I had can­cer] be­cause the chances of me be­ing suc­cess­fully treated were high,” says Boles. “But the sec­ond time I def­i­nitely did be­cause a) it had re­turned and b) it was much more ag­gres­sive. I had this to­tal hor­ror of the idea that I might lose my men­tal fac­ul­ties be­fore be­ing able to make a choice about treat­ment and when and how and where I wanted to die.”

This got him think­ing anew about as­sisted dy­ing and now Boles, 52, is a cru­sader for a cause that he de­scribes as “the next great fron­tier for lib­eral re­form”. Apart from tak­ing on the chair­man­ship of the All Party Par­lia­men­tary Group on As­sisted Dy­ing, he has be­come an en­er­getic writer and broad­caster on the sub­ject.

He is in favour of a Bill drawn up by for­mer Lord Chan­cel­lor Lord Fal­coner that stip­u­lates that a fa­tal dose of med­i­ca­tion – pos­si­bly bar­bi­tu­rates – can be legally pre­scribed only if two doc­tors agree that the in­di­vid­ual con­cerned is over 18, men­tally ca­pa­ble and within six months of death. Their de­ci­sion would then be re­viewed by a High Court judge.

SAYS Boles: “I feel very strongly that it is an im­por­tant thing to do. I haven’t sud­denly come to the con­clu­sion that we should all have the right to stab our­selves in the heart when­ever we feel like it just be­cause we’ve had a bad day.

“I haven’t moved in the sense that I still don’t sup­port euthana­sia. I don’t sup­port what I call as­sisted sui­cide, which is where some­one is not ter­mi­nally ill. But I do feel very strongly that we should take this – what I con­sider to be lim­ited – step. I think not to do so is a de­nial of a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right.

“The key thing is that the in­di­vid­u­als con­cerned are go­ing to die soon be­cause by def­i­ni­tion they’ve been judged as both ter­mi­nally ill and within six months of death. There’s no ques­tion about their death and its im­mi­nence, the only thing in ques­tion is how that death should hap­pen and pre­cisely when. I don’t think the state has the right to deny peo­ple that choice.”

Apart from the in­ti­ma­tions of mor­tal­ity prompted by his sec­ond bout of can­cer, Boles’ think­ing on as­sisted dy­ing was also af­fected by his own fa­ther’s demise.

Sir Jack Boles, a for­mer di­rec­tor­gen­eral of the Na­tional Trust, died five years ago at his home in Devon at the age of 88.

“He took a de­ci­sion to with­draw the sup­ply of oxy­gen that was ul­ti­mately keep­ing him alive and I think it’s won­der­ful that he was able to make the de­ci­sion,” says his son. (There is no law against re­fus­ing treat­ment.) “His death would have come within weeks or months any­way but the fact that he was able to do that meant that his death was ac­tu­ally gen­uinely for him a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Be­cause of the con­trol he had over the tim­ing of his end, Sir Jack was able to re­ceive com­mu­nion from the vicar of the par­ish where he had been church­war­den for many years and leave his wife and chil­dren with poignant words of farewell, be­fore a nurse ad­min­is­tered a seda­tive. “For us his fam­ily, while be­ing as heart­break­ing and sad as it inevitably would be, it was also won­der­ful and that was only be­cause he was able to – as it were – point at a but­ton and say, ‘Turn it off’. That op­tion isn’t avail­able to many peo­ple and I think it should be made avail­able to more peo­ple.”

Boles is think­ing in par­tic­u­lar of in­di­vid­u­als with mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease or late-stage can­cer, who wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily die just by re­fus­ing treat­ment with­out an enor­mous amount of suf­fer­ing. Op­po­nents ar­gue that a right to die could all too eas­ily be­come “a duty to die”: the el­derly and in­firm might feel un­der pres­sure to kill them­selves so as not to be a bur­den on their fam­i­lies.

“Such con­cerns are all the con­cerns that led me not to sup­port the Mar­ris Bill so I can en­tirely re­spect them,” says Boles. “And I have a strong mem­ory of why I felt those ar­gu­ments were suf­fi­ciently strong to cause me to with­hold my sup­port a very short time ago. My cur­rent feel­ing is that rather than hy­poth­e­sise about these things let’s look at the ev­i­dence.”

He reck­ons that there is no bet­ter il­lus­tra­tion of how an as­sisted dy­ing law can work in prac­tice than the ex­pe­ri­ence of the US state of Ore­gon. It in­tro­duced a Death With Dig­nity Act in 1997 af­ter a ref­er­en­dum re­sulted in 51.3 per cent of the votes in favour and 48.7 per cent against.

“It is 21 years since they in­tro­duced it in Ore­gon and they’ve got a huge amount of data and ev­i­dence re­lat­ing to how it’s ac­tu­ally op­er­ated and it is fas­ci­nat­ing and very in­spir­ing. First there is no ev­i­dence in the sense of some mas­sive in­crease in num­bers that would im­ply that some­thing like what you sug­gest is go­ing on.”

That said the num­ber of as­sisted deaths car­ried out an­nu­ally in the state has gone up by a fac­tor of 10: from 14 to 143. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says Boles. “But to take two ab­so­lute num­bers like that and sort of di­vide one by the other is not a sta­tis­ti­cally proper way of look­ing at it. What you have to look at is the per­cent­age of all deaths. It is still a very tiny pro­por­tion of all deaths.”

HE MAKES the point that at least part of this rise can be at­trib­uted to the fact that it takes time for peo­ple to be­come aware that the law has changed and if and when they qual­ify un­der its terms. As things stand, the pres­sure group Dig­nity In Dy­ing reck­ons that about 50 UK cit­i­zens a year go to Dig­ni­tas, the Swiss or­gan­i­sa­tion that of­fers an as­sisted dy­ing ser­vice from a clinic near Zurich, and an­other 300 or so kill them­selves at home with the – il­le­gal – help of loved ones.

Against this back­ground, pub­lic opin­ion ap­pears to back a change to the law with one Pop­u­lus poll con­ducted in 2015 find­ing 82 per cent of re­spon­dents in favour. While most churches op­pose the idea, 80 per cent of those iden­ti­fy­ing as Chris­tians in the Pop­u­lus poll sup­ported as­sisted dy­ing. But med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als tend to be less en­thu­si­as­tic. Doc­tors’ trade union the BMA is against it but the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal has called for a poll of doc­tors to es­tab­lish what its mem­ber­ship re­ally thinks.

Boles would like to see an as­sisted dy­ing Bill de­bated in the House of Com­mons be­fore 2022. “If I was a bet­ting man I’d say there is a 50-50 chance of get­ting a law on to the statute book be­fore the next elec­tion,” he says. “I would say there’s 100 per cent chance of get­ting it on the statute book be­fore the one af­ter that. I think the tide is very firmly turn­ing in our favour.”

Pic­ture: TIM CLARKE

LIKE FA­THER, LIKE SON: Nick ap­plauds the ac­tion his fa­ther Jack, with him left, was able to take

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